“Human Computer’s” Bermuda Calculations

August 25, 2019

NASA’s “human computer” Katherine Johnson celebrates her 101st birthday on Monday [Aug 26], and her indispensable role in ensuring space agency computers in Bermuda, Cape Canaveral and Washington DC were properly programmed before America’s first manned orbital space mission is being recalled..

Mathematician Mrs. Johnson’s early work for the National Aeronautics & Space Administration involved calculating trajectories, launch windows and emergency return paths for the pioneering Project Mercury manned space flights, including John Glenn’s historic mission

Katherine Johnson seen at her office at NASA in 1966. Picture courtesy of NASA


“In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Katherine Johnson was called upon to do the work that she would become most known for,” the space agency has said in the lead-up to her birthday.

The complexity of the orbital flight had required the construction of a global communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers situated in Bermuda, Washington, DC, and Cape Canaveral.

Because of its relative proximity to the Cape Canaveral space centre in Florida, NASA’s old Cooper’s Island tracking station in Bermuda played a pivotal role as a launch and earth orbit support facility in the space programme.

The trailer for the 2016 historical drama Hidden Figures

“The computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, from blast off to splashdown, but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts,” continued NASA in its tribute to Mrs. Johnson

“As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to ‘Get the girl’— meaning Katherine Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the Bermuda, Cape Canaveral and Washington DC computers, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. ‘If she says they’re good’, Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, ‘then I’m ready to go’.”

Mrs. Johnson did indeed confirm the numbers were good and John Glenn’s flight was a success, marking a turning point in the ongoing competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space.

The West Virginia native worked for NASA for 35 years and went on to play what have been called “essential” roles in the Apollo Moon missions and the Space Shuttle programme.

Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, Mrs. Johnson was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the Academy Award-nominated 2016 film Hidden Figures.

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