UJ honours 'human computer' Katherine Johnson

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Katherine Johnson, former physicist? and ?mathematician at NASA.
Katherine Johnson, former physicist? and ?mathematician at NASA.

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) will today bestow an Honorary Doctorate Degree upon African-American icon Katherine Johnson in recognition of her pioneering role at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Johnson, who is known as the 'human computer', was instrumental in the success of NASA's manned space missions and played an advocacy role in paving the way for females across the globe to enter the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

She was a ?physicist? and ?mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics at Nasa were critical to the success of several US human space-flight programmes.

During her 35-year career at NASA, she earned a reputation for ground-breaking scientific achievements through mastering complex manual calculations.

Professor Debra Meyer, executive dean of the Faculty of Science at UJ, explains: "Ms Johnson paved the way for young women, in particular black women, to work and excel in STEM fields and she did this in a time when segregation was the norm, and the deliberate exclusion of black people from intellectual pursuits was the order of the day.

"Johnson's mathematics talent and computer skills gave the US the edge in winning the space race. Her work contributed to putting the first men into space and eventually on the moon. During her more than three decade-long career at NASA, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations, combining her mathematics talent with computer skills to solve problems of an astro-physics nature."

US-based Johnson will turn 101 on 26 August. Her sharp mathematics skills enabled her to calculate and analyse the flight paths of many spacecraft trajectories and emergency return paths for Project Mercury spaceflights and those of astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American in orbit.

She was instrumental in the Apollo programme, also known as Project Apollo, which was the third US human spaceflight programme that succeeded in landing the first humans on the Moon from 1969 to 1972. She also worked on plans for a mission to Mars.

In 2015, president Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award.

She was portrayed by Taraji P Henson as a lead character in the 2016 film Hidden Figures, which tells the story of black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race.

Johnson received her BS degree in French and Mathematics from West Virginia State University (formerly West Virginia State College) in 1937. She was one of the first African-Americans to enrol in the mathematics programme at the university.

Upon completion of college, she began teaching in elementary and high schools in Virginia and West Virginia before she joined Langley Research Centre as a research mathematician for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, where she put her mathematics skills to work.

"Throughout her career, Johnson demonstrated distinguished achievement which is in line with the university's vision, mission and values. UJ and the Faculty of Science in particular are greatly honoured to confer the degree of Philosophiae Doctor Honoris causa upon her," says Meyer.

The mother of three daughters has been married to James Johnson since 1959.

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