Hidden Nasa genius honoured by SA varsity
Katherine Johnson broke through every racial and gender barrier in the space race, and turns 101 this year
Remember the gripping 2017 film, Hidden Figures, which finally told the story of the genius minds of three African-American women who did the maths behind the scenes at Nasa when astronaut John Glenn was launched into orbit?
This event was considered a major milestone in astronomical history, but the tireless work of three women who broke through all racial and gender barriers went untold until the movie came out.
Now Katherine Johnson, one of the brilliant women on whom the film is based, is receiving an honorary doctorate from a South African university.
On Monday she will be given an honorary doctorate by the University of Johannesburg. She also turns 101 this year, and her two daughters have travelled to SA to pick up the award on her behalf.
Johnson earned a reputation for mastering the most complex of mathematical calculations and helped Nasa pioneer the use of computers to perform tasks. Even when computers had been introduced, however, her genius was such that she was asked to double-check the results that the machines were coming up with.
All this was in the early 1960s at a time when she was considered a second-class citizen because of her gender and race and, in the movie, one sees how she and her two African-American colleagues were expected to use toilets that were very far from the work they were doing because of racist laws.
Prof Debra Meyer, the dean of science at UJ, said: “Ms Johnson paved the way for young women, in particular black women, to work and excel in STEM (science, tech, engineering, maths) fields, and she did this in a time when segregation was the norm, and the deliberate exclusion of black people from intellectual pursuits, the order of the day.”
She said Johnson’s mathematics talent and computer skill gave the USA “the edge in winning the space race” and that her work “contributed to putting the first men into space and eventually on the moon”.
“During her more than three-decade-long career at Nasa, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations, combining her mathematics talent with computer skills to solve problems of an astrophysics nature,” added Meyer.
Even from a very young age, she counted everything around her and could easily solve mathematical equations. She completed school at the age of 14, and was one of the first African Americans to enrol in the mathematics programme at West Virginia University. After graduating, she worked as a schoolteacher, but then began working for the government to put her maths skills to use in the space race.
In November 2015, she received the United States’ highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from president Barack Obama. In 2018, Mattel released the Katherine Johnson Barbie doll.
She is the mother of three daughters and has been married to James Johnson for six decades, since 1959.