They asked Katherine Johnson for the moon, and she gave it to them.
With little more than a pencil, a slide rule and one of the best mathematical minds in the country, Johnson, whose death at 101 was announced on Monday (24) by NASA, calculated the precise trajectories that would allow Apollo 11 to land on the moon in 1969 and, after Neil Armstrong's lunar tour, allow his return to Earth.
A single mistake, she knew, could have dire consequences for the ship and especially for the crew. His impeccable calculations had already helped to plan the successful flight of Alan B. Shepard Jr., who became the first American in space, aboard the Mercury spacecraft in 1961.
The following year, she also helped make it possible for John Glenn, on Mercury Friendship 7, to become the first American to orbit the Earth.
However, over Johnson's 33 years at NASA's Flight Research Division – the office from which the American space program emerged – and for decades later, hardly anyone knew her name.
Johnson was one of hundreds of women with a strict education, of unmatched ability and yet without much notoriety who, long before the modern feminist movement, worked as NASA mathematicians.
But it wasn't just sex that kept her very marginalized and largely ignored: Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, a West Virginia native who started her scientific career in the Jim Crow era, was also an African American.
In old age, Johnson became the most famous of the small group of black women — perhaps three dozen — who, in the middle of the century, served as mathematicians for the space agency and its predecessor, the National Aeronautical Advisory Committee.
The story was told in the 2016 Hollywood film "Stars Beyond Time" ("Hidden Figures", in the original title), based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly with the same title, published that year. The film starred Taraji P. Henson as Johnson, the central figure in the film. She also starred in Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe as her real-life colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.
In January 2017, “Hidden Figures” received the Screen Actors Guild Award for excellent performance by a cast in a film.
The film was nominated for three Oscars, including best film. Although she did not win, Johnson, 98 and a half, was given a standing ovation when she appeared on stage with the cast at the Oscar ceremony.
Of the black women in focus in the film, Johnson was the only one still alive at the time of its release.
In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, proclaiming: "Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society's expectations regarding her gender and race, by expanding the limits of humanity's reach".
In 2017, NASA dedicated a building in his honor, the Katherine G. Johnson Computer Research Center, at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
That year, the Washington Post described it as "the most prominent of computers" – "computer" was the term originally used to designate Johnson and his colleagues.
It "helped our nation expand the frontiers of space," said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement, "while making great strides that have also opened doors for women and people of color in the universal human quest to explore space."
As Johnson herself liked to say, her term at Langley – from 1953 until her retirement in 1986 – was "a time when computers wore skirts".
For some years, in the middle of the century, black women who worked as "computers" were subjected to double segregation: destined for separate offices, cafeterias and bathrooms, they were kept separate from the much larger group of white women who also worked as mathematicians of the NASA. White women, in turn, were segregated from the agency's mathematicians and engineers.
But over time, the work of Johnson and his colleagues – countless calculations done mostly by hand, using slide rules, graph paper and noisy calculating machines – has gained a level of acceptance that, for the most part, has transcended racial barriers.
"Nasa was a very professional organization," Johnson told The Observer in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 2010. "They didn't have time to worry about what color I was."
"Me neither," she said.
"I don't have a feeling of inferiority," said Johnson on at least one occasion. "I never have. I'm as good as anyone, but not better."
By the end of her life, Ms. Johnson devalued praise for her role in sending astronauts into space, keeping them on course and bringing them home safely.
"I was just doing my job," Shetterly heard her say over and over while researching her book.
But the job was done by a woman "when she was more likely to die before the age of 35 than she finished high school," wrote Shetterly.
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