Black History Month In Focus: Space Shuttle Named After ‘Hidden Figures’ Mathematician

NASA’s mathematician Katherine Johnson is one of the nation’s hidden treasures as are so many in the Black community.

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She made history as one of the first Black women to work as a NASA scientist. Johnson was brilliant as it pertained to numbers and formulas and in 1961 she put the calculations together that enabled astronauts to go into space.

For better than 30 years, she used her math capabilities to transform the possibilities of space travel.

As a tribute to her meticulous and downright breathtaking work, a space station supply ship named after her launched into the International Space Station on February 20th, celebrating the 59th anniversary of John Glenn’s historic orbit around the Earth.

Johnson’s role in this endeavor was crucial as she verified the numbers needed to make a launch possible. It’s safe to say her numbers were pretty accurate.

“It’s our tradition to name each Cygnus after an individual who’s played a pivotal role in human space flight, and Ms. Johnson was selected for her hand-written calculations that helped launch the first Americans into space, as well as her accomplishments in breaking the proverbial glass ceiling after glass ceiling as a Black woman” said Frank DeMauro, Vice President and General Manager at Northrop Grumman.

Northrop Grumman named the NG-15 Cygnus spacecraft, the S.S. Katherine Johnson, in celebration of Black History Month.

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Johnson was born August 26, 2018, in White Sulphuric Springs, West Virginia. She displayed an incredible math skillset at a young age, which allowed her to take an ax Leto oath in her academic studies. She even enrolled in college early and took every math course available to her, while also receiving mentorship from multiple professors. NASA even says she was mentored by the third Black person to earn a Ph. D. in mathematics, professor W.W. Schiefellin Claytor.

In 1937, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and French. She was just 18-years-old. Upon graduation, she followed in her mentor’s footsteps as a teacher. She landed a job as a teacher at a Black public school in Virginia. She then became the first Black woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) hired Johnson as a research mathematician in 1953. That organization became NASA in 1958. Her work was instrumental in Alan Shepard’s mission Freedom 7, John Glenn’s orbital mission, and Apollo 11’s flight to the moon.

In 2015 President Obama awarded Johnson the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal Of Freedom. In 2016, the Hollywood film “Hidden Figures” her contributions as a NASA mathematician. Taraji P. Henson played the lead role of Katherine Johnson.

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Johnson passed on February 24, 2020, at age 101. She left the world with several quotes that highlight the keys to success and significance. “We always have STEM with us.” Some things will drop out the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engine and technology. And above all, there will always be mathematics.”

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