Astrophiz 111: Katherine Johnson – Paving Apollo’s way to the moon and back

Astrophiz 111: Vale Katherine Johnson – Paving Apollo’s way to the moon and back


This episode is a special feature on the life achievements of Katherine Johnson, the African American mathematician who hand calculated many mission trajectories for NASA, including the iconic Apollo 11 mission. She lived to be 101, born in 1918 and passed away in February this year. She is remembered forever as an integral part of NASA history and for standing up for the rights of black Americans. In popular culture, she is portrayed lovingly in the film “Hidden Figures,” about pioneering black female aerospace workers, and her autobiography ‘Reaching for the moon’ is a best seller that was published just last year.

Katherine calculated the trajectory for the May 5, 1961 space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. She also calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission. She plotted on board navigation charts carried by astronaut missions in case of system and comms failures. When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth, Katherine was relied on to verify the computer’s numbers. John Glenn refused to fly unless Johnson verified the calculations and he asked for her specifically to verify his proposed orbit. Katherine Johnson not only helped calculate the trajectories that took Apollo astronauts to the Moon, she was also a crucial contributor to the start of the Space shuttle program. — she was a constant champion for women and minorities in the space program and in the world as a whole, breaking down racial and social barriers. Throughout her long and brilliant career she received many awards, including her country’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Barack Obama.

Now brought to light, Johnson’s legacy won’t be forgotten and will hopefully lead to recognition for other black women too-long overlooked due to racism and sexism.
We honor her memory and great legacy in this special episode. 


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