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Katherine Johnson, the Scientist Who Took Man to the Moon

It wasn't easy being a career woman in 1950s America. Moreover, being African-American made things even harder. Yet Katherine Johnson, who fell into both categories, not only made it. In fact, she also managed to leave an indelible mark on the history of human progress. The mathematician who died on Monday, February 24, 2020 at the venerable age of 101 was in fact part of the NASA team that calculated the trajectories that brought the Apollo 11 mission module to touch the lunar ground.

Katherine Johnson

She was 101 years old and she died after a life dedicated to science. Her name was Katherine Johnson. She was the woman whose calculations allowed Apollo 11 to conquer the moon.

It wasn’t easy being a career woman in 1950s America.

Moreover, being African-American made things even harder. Yet Katherine Johnson, who fell into both categories, not only made it. In fact, she also managed to leave an indelible mark on the history of human progress. The mathematician who died on Monday, February 24, 2020 at the venerable age of 101 was in fact part of the NASA team that calculated the trajectories that brought the Apollo 11 mission module to touch the lunar ground.

The Story of Katherine Johnson

Born in West Virginia on August 26, 1918, Katherine Johnson immediately showed a natural predisposition in mathematical disciplines. For this reason, her parents, a lumberjack and a teacher, decided to invest heavily in her education. At that time, however, African Americans could not access the best schools in the state. As a result, Katherine had to work twice as hard as her peers to graduate. In 1938, however, she became the first African-American woman to finish her studies at West Virginia University.

Continuing her career in science, Katherine joined NASA in the early 1950s. She started working as a colored computer, which is the expression they used to define African employees. However, she ended up working on the ambitious project that would bring the man to the Moon.

Her team had in fact to measure and process with absolute precision the various trajectories – especially those of return – for lunar missions. In short, she was really a ‘human calculator‘, since back then computers were not as powerful as they are today. Moreover, Katherine herself often preferred to use pen and paper to complete her very complicated calculations.

Hidden Figures

They were years of great professional achievement but also of enormous difficulty for Katherine. In fact, black employees continued to work separately from white employees. There was a massive discrimination regardless of their ability. This situation is perfectly described in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. This film tells the story of three important women: Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan. These three African-American scientists for a long time saw their decisive contribution to the conquest of the moon diminished.

In the end, however, they too received the recognition they deserved for to their work. Until the 1970s, in fact, they held decisive positions in the organization of subsequent space missions. In 2015, Katherine Johnson herself received the Medal of Freedom from the then President Obama. This is the highest civilian award in the United States.

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