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Black History Facts - Katherine Johnson

Info eNConnect celebrates Katherine G. Johnson, one of the most influential women in the history of STEM.

Image from The Hollywood Reporter site

Hidden Figures is a 2016 American biographical drama film based on a true story and non-fiction book about female African-American mathematicians at NASA. The film stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson, a mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for NASA. It also features Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson.

In 1962, Katherine Goble (Johnson), a mathematician, worked with Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan, acting supervisor of the African-American women referred to as "computers," at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

After the successful launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik, Al Harrison, the director of the NASA Space Group, was told to get American astronauts into space quickly. Katherine was assigned to assist the team as a computer specialist, becoming the first African-American woman in the group of white male engineers.

Harrison challenged the entire engineering group to solve a complex mathematical equation. When Katherine stepped forward and solved it, she gained his attention. During the team's visit to Langley, which included John Glenn among the astronauts, Glenn expressed his gratitude to the African American employees. Despite facing objections, Harrison included Katherine in high-security meetings so that she could hear firsthand how the data was constantly changing.

Katherine then created a sophisticated equation that could slow down the space capsule and enable a safe re-entry and landing at a particular point. However, issues still arose before the space launch, and John Glenn specifically requested Katherine to double-check the calculations before he would go ahead with the mission.

Ultimately, the management team assigned Katherine to the Analysis and Computation Division. Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectories for the Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 space missions and later the Space Shuttles.

"We will always have STEM with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering, and technology. And there will always be mathematics." ~ Katherine Goble Johnson

Katherine Johnson passed away on February 24, 2020 (age 102); she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Dorothy Vaughan passed on November 10, 2008, and Mary Jackson passed on February 11, 2005.

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Initial published date: 3/18/2022

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