A portrait of Katherine Jophnson

Katherine Johnson helped send the U.S. into space

"Today is a celebration of the power that mathematics has had in improving our lives," declared Paul Wright Jameson at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills on Monday, Dec. 17.

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson.

      The theme, explored during the celebration of the 115th anniversary of Orville and Wilbur Wright's groundbreaking 1903 flight, was the genius, hard work and indomitable spirit of the Wright brothers and this year's First Flight Society honoree — NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who was featured in the 2016 film, Hidden Figures, which told the story of the female African American mathematicians who helped play a vital role in the U.S. space program.

      Noting that Orville and Wilbur Wright were both high school dropouts, Jameson, their great-grandnephew, said that when the brothers "turned their attention to how to fly, especially when they were doing their wind tunnel experiments, they needed mathematics." These high school dropouts, he explained, had mastered the trigonometry they studied in high school that they needed to solve the age-old problem of controlled flight.

      "Fast-forwarding” to the 1950s and '60s, Jameson observed that Katherine Johnson applied her knowledge of calculus to NASA's Mercury space program, calculating orbits, trajectories and splashdown points and making possible America's rapid advance in space travel, culminating in man's first steps on the moon.

      Dr. Tom Crouch, Senior Curator of the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution (NASM), announced that Johnson was this year's inductee into the First Flight Society's Hall of Fame, the Paul E. Garber First Flight Shrine.

      "We're celebrating a space pioneer today," Crouch said, "a pioneer who remained on the ground, but made...space flight possible." The great steps forward in space travel, he added, from orbiting the Earth to the moon landing, space shuttles, robotic landings on Mars and sending spacecraft beyond our solar system, can be traced to the work of Johnson and, beyond her, to the Wright brothers.  

      "The Wrights were mathematicians as well," Crouch stressed, "and, while neither of them was a college graduate, they were in fact intuitive engineers of genius...And I'm sure that they would be especially pleased this morning that mathematician Katherine Johnson is being honored on First Flight Day."

      Johnson's daughter Katherine Moore and grandson Michael Moore were on hand to participate in the unveiling of Johnson's First Flight Shrine portrait painted by celebrated artist Gregory Kavalec. 

      Katherine Moore told the Sentinel following the program that "this time of year is not good" for her 100-year-old mother, adding that she is looking forward to sharing the presentation with her soon. She recalled that her mother's most exciting honor was receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 from President Obama. "He kissed me on my cheek," she recalled her mother saying.

      Michael Moore added that every honor his grandmother receives is a reminder of "how many people she's touched" and her "love and passion for math and science." He also said her legacy extends to "every little girl who wants to do math when before she wouldn't, and every young child who now is interested in space, but wouldn't have been previously."

      Dr. David Bowles, Director of the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA, where Johnson worked for 33 years, said he appreciated the opportunity to stand "on hallowed ground on this important anniversary" and share some thoughts on "the power of the human mind, the strength of the human spirit and the nature of greatness."

      He added that, "while generations apart, the Wright brothers and Katherine have much in common as sharp-minded pioneers who would not be hemmed in by conventional wisdom." In Johnson, he noted, "ability and determination combined to create an unstoppable force."

      Bowles said that Johnson’s birth in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, reminds us that "heroes can come from unlikely places." And while her life is "an inspiring, classic American story," Bowles said it also makes him wonder "what our nation might have achieved if women and people of color hadn't been marginalized for so long."

      Urging his audience to inspire young people to "get excited every day and go do something great," Bowles observed: "There's no better way to pay tribute to Katherine than by rolling up your sleeves and working hard toward goals for the common good...And researchers of today are using their ingenuity and determination to help humans make unprecedented expeditions into deep space." 

      "America's journey to the stars began right here on these sand dunes on the Outer Banks of North Carolina," he declared.

      At the conclusion of the program, four aircraft participated in the annual flyover around the Wright Brothers Monument. The last one was the C-54 Spirit of Freedom — AKA the Candy Bomber.

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Editor, Outer Banks Sentinel

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