Farewell to a hero: Katherine Johnson

220px Eddie Bernice Johnson Official Portrait c112th Congress
Eddie Bernice Johnson Official Portrait 112th Congress

 

By EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON

U.S. House of Representatives

 

Throughout the years America’s space program has launched courageous men and women into outer space. The explorations have helped to make America an exceptional nation, admired and emulated the world over.

We recently lost one of the heroes that helped to propel our nation’s exploratory greatness which led to the development of new technologies, extraordinary consumer products and improvements in the way humans live on earth.

Katherine Johnson, a stately mathematical genius, whose grandparents lived during slavery, never flew on a spacecraft, but her leadership and mathematical calculations insured the safety of those that did.

Johnson’s intellectual prowess was so immense that the first American astronaut to orbit the earth insisted that she review and approve the orbital trajectory calculations before his space flight. They had been calculated by a computer, but the astronaut, Marine Corps pilot John Glenn, who later became a United States senator, was not assured until Johnson had personally checked the numbers by hand.

Her reputation for professional excellence was extensive. Even while a mother of three children she often worked 16 hours each day. She was in love with her work, and her nation’s objectives. Johnson possessed a gifted mathematical mind from the time she was a small girl growing up in West Virginia, where her father farmed, and her mother taught school children.

At an early age Johnson decided to pursue subjects such as geometry and algebra. She entered high school at the age of 10, and when she was 15 she enrolled in college. She was a gentle giant in what is referred to as STEM, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, encouraging young students to purpose those disciplines.

It was clear to her college instructors that she would make major contributions as a mathematician.

When she went to work for NASA in the early 1950s, her supervisors quickly learned that she was an unusual talent. It was not because she was a person of color or because she was a woman, but simply because she was brilliant.

For 33 years, Johnson, whose remarkable work, and that of other women of color, was chronicled in the 2017 motion picture film entitled Hidden Figures, remained one of the foundations of the American space program. She published dozens of scientific papers and her biography, Reaching for the Moon has inspired all of those who have read it.

Our nation and its space program owe a tremendous debt to Johnson who passed on Feb. 24 in New Port News, Virginia. She was 101 years old. With her life, she did much more than excel at mathematics, she quietly helped to change the world.

It is my great hope that students in this country and in other parts of the world, inspired by her brilliant example, will follow in Johnson’s footsteps and become great mathematicians, scientists, engineers and so much more.

 

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson is the ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and the highest-ranking Texan on the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure. She represents the 30th Congressional District of Texas.

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