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Remembering Katherine Johnson, A Pioneering Mathematician Who Shot For The Moon

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson is seen in 1966. (NASA via AP)
NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson is seen in 1966. (NASA via AP)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Pioneering mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose calculations made Apollo 11's historic 1969 mission to the moon possible, died last week. We'll look back at her life and contributions.


Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the New York Times bestseller "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race." (@margotshetterly)

Christine Darden, she was a "computer" at NASA's Langley Research Center. One of the "hidden figures" featured in Margot Lee Shetterly's book. Former technical leader of NASA's Sonic Boom Group. 2019 Congressional Gold Medal recipient. (@ChristineDard19)

From The Reading List

Hidden Figures. Copyright © 2016 by Margot Lee Shetterly. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, address HarperCollins Publishers.

The New York Times: "Katherine Johnson Dies at 101; Mathematician Broke Barriers at NASA" — "They asked Katherine Johnson for the moon, and she gave it to them.

"Wielding little more than a pencil, a slide rule and one of the finest mathematical minds in the country, Mrs. Johnson, who died at 101 on Monday at a retirement home in Newport News, Va., calculated the precise trajectories that would let Apollo 11 land on the moon in 1969 and, after Neil Armstrong’s history-making moonwalk, let it return to Earth.

"A single error, she well knew, could have dire consequences for craft and crew. Her impeccable calculations had already helped plot the successful flight of Alan B. Shepard Jr., who became the first American in space when his Mercury spacecraft went aloft in 1961.

"The next year, she likewise helped make it possible for John Glenn, in the Mercury vessel Friendship 7, to become the first American to orbit the Earth."

Wired: "Katherine Johnson’s Math Will Steer NASA Back to the Moon" — "Katherine Johnson blazed trails, not just as a black female mathematician during the Cold War, but by mapping literal paths through outer space. Her math continues to carve out new paths for spacecraft navigating our solar system, as NASA engineers use evolved versions of her equations that will execute missions to the moon and beyond.

"The retired NASA mathematician, who died Monday at the age of 101, calculated the trajectories of the agency’s first space missions, including John Glenn’s 1962 spaceflight in which he became the first American to orbit the planet, and the first moon landing in 1969. But Johnson’s contributions to spaceflight extend beyond such historic moments, several of which are dramatized in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures. Her work forms part of the mathematical foundation of NASA’s missions today. 'She had a big contribution to trajectory design in general,' says NASA aerospace engineer Jenny Gruber.

"At NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Gruber works on the Artemis mission, which plans to send the first woman and the next man to the moon in 2024. Gruber plans trajectories for Artemis, just as Johnson did for the first lunar landing. Gruber’s basic task remains essentially the same as Johnson’s was in 1962: to calculate the speed, acceleration, and direction required to lob a spacecraft of certain size and fuel capacity to hit a moving target, without a lot of room for extra maneuvering.

"These missions are not unlike trying to hit a rotating bull’s-eye with a dart while jumping off a carousel, the dart being the astronaut, the Earth the spinning carousel, and the bull’s eye a spot on the moon. As Johnson told a PBS interviewer in 2011, 'It was intricate, but it was possible.'"

This program aired on March 4, 2020.


Wes Martin Freelance Producer
Wes Martin is a freelance producer for On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Twitter Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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