Katherine Johnson – the human computer
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“I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to the church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did”, this is what Katherine Johnson said about herself when she received the US National Medal of Freedom in 2015.
I bet you are wondering who is Katherine Johnson and how come she loved to count so much?
Katherine was an American mathematician who worked for NASA and who at last is celebrated for her important activity and her mathematical skills.
But let us start her story from the very beginning.
Katherine was born on the 26th of August 26, in West Virginia, in an African-American family.
At the age of 4, she could already spell and multiply, and by the age of 10, she would already finish high school. She graduated from West Virginia State College at the young age of 18, with a degree in mathematics…of course.
At that time, the USA practised racial segregation, so Katherine encountered not only gender barriers but also racist ones. Because there were not many options for women, and especially women of colour, she started teaching, although she was dreaming of working with numbers.
In 1953 Katherine was finally hired to work as a „computer” by National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later become NASA. Her job was to do by hand aerospace calculations.
Later on, her love for mathematics, her need to refine her work, and her curiosity for knowledge got her in a higher position as an aerospace technologist. Johnson’s work finally got the chance to make a difference.
Katherine has calculated the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space.
John Glenn, the first U.S. astronaut to circle Earth, had flown only after Johnson verified the automated calculations made initially by an IBM computer. This calculation took her a day and a half, but it was perfect because the numbers really matched. She also helped with the calculation of the trajectory for the Apollo flight to the Moon.
Johnson retired in 1986, after many accomplishments in the space field, and NASA has appreciated her scientific work throughout time, but maybe what depicts her more accurately is Barack Obama’s description, because her life and her service have exceeded every barrier:
"Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society's expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity's reach."
Katherine is no longer with us since the 24th of February, 2020, but the space field will always remember her legacy:
“Ms. Johnson helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of colour,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator.