Who is Katherine Johnson? Cygnus spacecraft honors ‘Hidden Figures’ Black mathematician to reach ISS

She joined National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), now known as NASA, in 1953. Her calculations helped put the first Americans in space


                            Who is Katherine Johnson? Cygnus spacecraft honors ‘Hidden Figures’ Black mathematician to reach ISS
Named SS Katherine Johnson, the Cygnus cargo spacecraft will aid in multiple projects (NASA)

NASA’s commercial cargo provider Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus cargo spacecraft lifted off at 12.36 pm EST on February 20. The spacecraft, dubbed the SS Katherine Johnson, is named after the Black mathematician whose contributions were featured in the Oscar-nominated film 'Hidden Figures'.

Scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station (ISS) on February 22, the capsule carries approximately 8,000 pounds of research, crew supplies, and hardware. It was launched aboard the Antares from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), located at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. 

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The cargo will help scientists learn about muscle loss using worms; look at the sleep quality of astronauts; test equipment for future missions to the Moon; and provide upgrades to life support systems, among others. 

Cygnus launches atop the Antares rocket from NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia (NASA)

 

As Cygnus approaches the International Space Station, it will be grappled by the crew using the station’s robotic arm, and then installed on the bottom side of the station’s Harmony node. After delivering cargo to the station, Cygnus will destructively re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. It is Northrop Grumman’s 15th resupply mission to the ISS. 

What were Johnson’s contributions?

Born in 1918 in the town of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson was a research mathematician, who by her own admission, was fascinated by numbers. “I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did,” she stated.

Johnson’s father was a farmer who drove his family 120 miles to Institute, West Virginia, where she continued her education through high school. She graduated from high school at 14, and from college at 18. 

After attending graduate school and working as a public school teacher, she was hired in June 1953 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA. At the agency, Johnson’s calculations were critical in helping put the first Americans in space. 

Johnson sits at her desk with a globe (NASA)

 

“She did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight. In 1960, she and engineer Ted Skopinski co-authored Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position, a report laying out the equations describing an orbital spaceflight in which the landing position of the spacecraft is specified. It was the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had received credit as an author of a research report,” describes her biography.

She was a ‘computer’ at NASA’s Langley Research Center “when the computer wore a skirt,” said Johnson. Her work at Langley Research Center spanned 1953 to 1986. Her most remembered effort is the calculations that contributed to the 1962 mission that made John Glenn the first American to orbit the globe. Johnson’s accomplishments at Langley were highlighted in the bestselling book Hidden Figures, and the hit movie of the same name starring Taraji P Hensen as Johnson. 

“In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Johnson was called upon to do the work that she would become most known for. The complexity of the orbital flight had required the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, Cape Canaveral in Florida, and Bermuda,” notes the agency. It adds, “The computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission from liftoff to splashdown, but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts.”

Katherine Johnson's work at Langley included calculating the trajectory of the early space launches (Sean Smith/NASA)

 

Even after NASA began using electronic computers, Glenn requested that she recheck the calculations made by the new electronic computers before his flight aboard Friendship 7. “As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to ‘get the girl’ — Johnson — to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. ‘If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go,’ Johnson remembers the astronaut saying,” notes the biography. 

Johnson retired from the agency in 1986. “I loved going to work every single day,” she said. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US’s highest civilian honor. 

Johnson died on February 24, 2020. “Our NASA family is sad to learn the news that Katherine Johnson passed away this morning at 101 years old. She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten,” said the then NASA administrator James Bridenstine.

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