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Sunday, August 26, 2018

Katherine Johnson (1918-)

Katherine Johnson is celebrating her 100th birthday today. This is the first centenary post we've done for a living person.

The movie Hidden Figures made her story famous: In 1952, she joined NACA, the predecessor of NASA, in the all-black West Area Computing section of the Langley lab in Virginia. During the "space race" of the 50's and 60's she worked on trajectory analysis for the early human spaceflights. In 1960, she was the first woman to co-author a technical report for NASA on placing satellites over a specific latitude and longitude.

The West Area Computing section had human computers working on the critical calculations for air and space travel. Soon NASA started moving that work to IBM machines but much as we don't fully trust machine learning today, humans didn't initially trust these computers. John Glenn's first orbital mission required complex calculations to track his flight. He insisted on Katherine Johnson working out the computations herself, which she did. "If she says they're good then I'm ready to go".

In 2015, then President Obama awarded Katherine Johnson the highest US civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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