Memorial services set for NASA Trailblazer Katherine Johnson

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Katherine Johnson (Screenshot NASA)

Crusader Staff Report

Memorial services have been set for Katherine Johnson, the brilliant NASA mathematician whose achievements were dramatized in the movie “Hidden Figures.”

Johnson died February 24. She was 101.

A two-day commemoration was planned with viewings at two separate locations on Friday, March 6. The first was to be held at O. H. Smith and Son Funeral Home, 3009 Chestnut Ave. in Newport News, VA, from noon to 3:00 p.m.

There will be a viewing at the second location later the same day at Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church, 830 25th Street, also in Newport News at 5:00 p.m.

A Celebration of Life Service was scheduled at 11 a.m. on Saturday at the Hampton University Convocation Center. It will be preceded by a 9 a.m. viewing.

NASA never mentioned Johnson until the movie “Hidden Figures” told her story in 2016, seen in movie theaters across the globe. The movie also portrayed two additional trailblazing Black women whose contributions at NASA went largely unnoticed in America media.

The film, based on a book of the same name, also starred Octavia Spencer as mathematician Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as engineer Mary Jackson.

Jackson died in 2005; Vaughan died in 2008.

Johnson was the last survivor of the three. In 2017, NASA dedicated a building in her honor, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, proclaiming,“Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.”

She was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the youngest of four children of Joshua and Joylette (Lowe) Coleman. Johnson’s mother was a schoolteacher and her father a farmer.

Gifted as a child, Johnson breezed through her classes and completed the eighth grade by age 10. In 1999 Johnson told the Associated Press, “I couldn’t wait to get to high school to take algebra and geometry.”

Because Blacks could not take classes with whites beyond the sixth grade, Johnson’s father drove the family 120 miles to Institute, West Virginia, where they lived while she attended high school.

Johnson enrolled at West Virginia State College, (now West Virginia State University) in Institute, West Virginia. She studied under Dr. William W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third Black graduate student to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. Claytor was determined to prepare Johnson to become a research mathematician. Johnson graduated summa cum laude with degrees in mathematics and French.

Johnson began working at NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1953 at the Langley Laboratory in Virginia.

She said her greatest contribution to space exploration was making “the calculations that helped sync Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module.” In other words, helping to put men on the moon in 1969.

She was also the first woman in the Flight Research Division to receive credit as an author of a research report for her work with Ted Skopinski on detailing the equations describing an orbital spaceflight.

Johnson calculated the precise trajectories that would allow Apollo 11 to land on the moon in 1969 and, after Neil Armstrong’s history-making moonwalk, let it return to Earth. It would be one of several stunning accomplishments that Johnson achieved as NASA remained a largely-segregated government agency that lacked Blacks in high ranking positions.

Johnson’s calculations also contributed to 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, Johnson helped bring John Glenn back to Earth in the Mercury vessel Friendship 7, to become the first American to orbit the Earth.

“Johnson helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of color in the universal human quest to explore space,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.

Johnson’s work for Astronaut Glenn was a groundbreaking achievement.

The 1962 flight required the construction of a “worldwide communications network” linking tracking stations around the world to computers in Washington, D.C., Cape Canaveral and Bermuda.

But astronauts weren’t keen on “putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts,” according to NASA. So, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl,” referring to Johnson, to run the computer equations by hand. “If she says they’re good,’” Johnson remembered Glenn saying, “then I’m ready to go.”

“Glenn’s flight was a success and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space,” NASA says.

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