Science Poetry

Celestial Navigation

Katherine Johnson, 
As mathematician,
Will orbits apprise:
Gifts analytic and
Genius logistic
Facilitate NASA’s paths
To, through the skies.” 

The 18 April 2021 Twitter biography celebrated the life of mathematician and scientist Katherine Johnson (1918-2020).  Johnson was one of the first Black women to work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and her multi-decade career there included support of multiple historic flights, including those of Alan Shepard and John Glenn.  

“Data-equatingly, /
Katherine Johnson, /
As mathematician, /
Will orbits apprise…”

Katherine Johnson was only 18 when she graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia State University, majoring in both mathematics and French. She began her career as a math teacher, but she is most well-known for her subsequent work at NASA as a “human computer” during the Space Race.  As such, she “data-equatingly” solved many complex calculations in support of mission launches, orbits, and re-entries.     

She would later note that her love of mathematics was there from childhood: “I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.”

“Gifts analytic and /
Genius logistic /
Facilitate NASA’s paths /
To, through the skies.” 

The recent movie Hidden Figures told Johnson’s story, along with those of two of her colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, during the time surrounding John Glenn’s orbit of the Earth in 1962; Glenn was the first American to complete an orbit.  

As recounted in that film, Glenn had asked that Johnson, specifically, verify the mathematical calculations surrounding his historic flight.  Johnson’s “gifts analytic and genius logistic” were central in this momentous step in American history.  Her career would continue with support of the Apollo moon landing and many other efforts until her retirement in 1986.  

Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2019.  NASA also recognized Johnson’s efforts, renaming a program in her honor and presenting her with one of their “Silver Snoopy” awards, an honor which is bestowed specifically by NASA astronauts for outstanding support of the space program.