Katherine Johnson, who plotted and checked calculations on paper for Astronaut John Glenn’s successful 1962 Earth orbit, died Monday. Mrs. Johnson was 101 years old.
Glenn requested that Johnson specifically check and confirm trajectories and entry points the IBM computer had generated. Glenn did not trust computers and he asked Johnson to confirm the machine’s finding. She spent a day and a half going over the numbers.
“If she says the numbers are good… I’m ready to go,” Glenn said. He orbited the Earth three times.
Johnson also wrote the trajectory for Astronaut Alan Shepherd’s flight into space in 1961. Shepherd was the first American to fly into space.
Mrs. Johnson was “critical to the success of the early U.S. space programs,” Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian, said in a 2017 interview for this obituary. “She had a singular intellect, curiosity, and skill set in mathematics that allowed her to make any contributions, each of which might be considered worthy of a single lifetime.”
A native of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson, then Katherine Coleman, graduated from high school at 14 and West Virginia State University at 18.
She attributed her success in math to her father who worked in the lumber industry. He could quickly calculate the number of boards a tree could produce.
In 1953, Johnson was hired by NACA and, five years later, NACA became NASA, thanks to the 1958 Space Act. President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, in 2015.
Johnson’s story was told in the 2017 film “Hidden Figures.” She died at home in Newport News, Virginia.