Women in Science: Hidden Figure Katherine Johnson, NASA's Human Computer

In honor of International Women’s Day this week, Ask Science highlights the work of Katherine Johnson.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #229

Electronic Over Human Computation

Although NASA now relies on electronic over human computation, one of the first human computers hired by NASA to compute trajectories for rocket launches still works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a software tester and subsystem engineer. Sue Finley is the longest-serving female NASA employee and at the age of 80, is a member of the team on NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter.

These tools allow for the creation of flight plans in a matter of minutes – calculations that would take days of calculations by hand. 

Now NASA relies on tools like their Horizons ephemeris guide which tracks the positions of large solar system bodies to high precision and the General Mission Analysis Tool (or GMAT), a modeling program that optimizes orbital trajectories. These tools allow for the creation of flight plans in a matter of minutes – calculations that would take days of calculations by hand. GMAT is also used by the Air Force Research Lab for problems like simulating collision avoidance among satellites and people like you! GMAT is open source code and has been downloaded over 49,000 times.  

Last year NASA also announced the introduction of the Evolutionary Mission Trajectory Generator which not only calculates flight paths from the equations of orbital mechanics, but also takes into account spacecraft design like the type of launch vehicle and propellant tanks used to satisfy different performance criteria. Since the design of spacecraft clearly affects its trajectory, this added flexibility will allow for more efficient calculations, as well as more efficient spacecraft.

Honors for Katherine Johnson

Thirty years after her retirement in 1986, Johnson’s story, and the work of many other African American women computers, were brought into the spotlight by Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, and Katherine Johnson’s contributions were hidden no longer. President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, the highest civilian honor in the US, and in May 2016, NASA opened the $30 million Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at Langley.

In a piece for Vanity Fair, former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden stated that, “With a slide rule and a pencil, Katherine advanced the cause of human rights and the frontier of human achievement at the same time.” The movie Hidden Figures, based off of Shetterly’s book, has brought in more than $158 million at the box office and is changing the optics on not only what it looks like to be a NASA engineer, but also what it takes for a black woman to get there. In the movie’s trailer, Janelle Monae as human computer Mary Jackson is asked, “If you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?” And she responds, “I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one.”

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com


Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.