John Glenn’s Earth Orbit Got a Boost from a Black Woman Mathematician

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Astronaut John Glenn, who was the first American to orbit the Earth, owed the success of his mission and his peace of mind to Katherine G. Johnson, a black woman mathematician at NASA.

When it was Glenn’s turn to go into space, NASA had started using machines to make flight calculations, but Glenn did not trust the new technology. He insisted that Johnson check the results, according to the publication Mental Floss.

“You could do much more, much faster on a [machine] computer,” Johnson told Researcher News. “But when they went to [machine] computers, they called over and said, “Tell them to check and see if the computer trajectory they had calculated was correct. So I checked and it was correct.”

Astronaut Glenn, a former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, died yesterday. He was 95.
John Glenn

Glenn was aboard Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962, carrying out the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission. Glenn circled the Earth three times in a flight lasting 4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds.

In 1961, Johnson, the only non-white, non-male member of the Space Task Force, which was charged with getting Americans into space, played a crucial role in plotting calculations for Alan Shepard’s trajectory. Shepard was the first American in space.

She also calculated the trajectory for Apollo 11 and the space shuttle program.

Katherine Johnson received the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama

On November 24, 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. Johnson, who enrolled in college at 15, was a graduate of West Virginia State University. She later earned a graduate degree in mathematics.

“Hidden Figures,” a film about black women mathematicians at NASA, is scheduled for release in February.