Honoring NASA’s Katherine Johnson, STEM Pioneer


By Knatokie Ford

This blog was originally published Nov. 30 by the White House at https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/11/25/honoring-nasas-katherine-johnson-stem-pioneer

President Barack Obama presents former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as professional baseball player Willie Mays, right, looks on, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. President Barack Obama presents former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as professional baseball player Willie Mays, right, looks on, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
President Barack Obama presents former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as professional baseball player Willie Mays, right, looks on, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

In his speech to the Congressional Black Caucus in September 2015, President Obama noted, “Black women have been a part of every great movement in American history—even if they weren’t always given a voice.” Most will think of this in the context of the civil rights movement, where black women helped plan the March on Washington, but were largely absent from the program, or perhaps even in the fight for women’s rights, from suffrage to the feminist movement. Very few, however, may know the role that women, particularly women of color, have played as innovators and leaders in the domains of science and technology.

On November 24th, President Obama bestowed the Medal of Freedom, the Nation’s highest civilian honor, to Katherine Johnson—a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) mathematician who exhibited exceptional technical leadership, calculating and verifying trajectories that took the first Americans to space and to the moon.

Johnson’s recognition by President Obama marks a proud moment in American history because until recently, Johnson’s critical technical contributions to the space race were largely unknown to the world. The contributions and leadership of countless scientific and technical women and people of color who have been tremendous innovators have been left out of American history books, unfortunately. That’s why the Obama Administration is deeply committed to illuminating the great work and “untold history” of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as well as also shining a light on the great potential of all of America’s children to lead the world as the next generation of discoverers, inventors, and high-tech entrepreneurs.

In addition, a feature film is in the works to share Katherine Johnson’s story, along with the other three black women that were crucial to the success of the NASA space missions of the 50s and 60s. It is truly an exciting time—there is momentum building where a number of organizations seek to harness the power of media and storytelling to incite change, specifically in the STEM inclusion domain. Popular entertainment media (e.g. television and film) can influence the public’s perceptions towards STEM by shaping, cultivating, or reinforcing the “cultural meanings” of STEM fields and careers. Currently, STEM men outpace STEM women 5 to 1 in family films. Entertainment media can, therefore, play a dichotomous role—it can either reinforce biases and stereotypes that discourage girls and minorities from pursuing STEM careers, or it can help to paint pictures of the inclusive STEM workforce the Nation aspires to achieve.

White House Office of Science and Technology staffers meet with Medal of Freedom recipient Katherine Johnson. From left, Afua Bruce, Johnson, Knatokie Ford, and Payton Iheme. (Photo Credit: OSTP)
White House Office of Science and Technology staffers meet with Medal of Freedom recipient Katherine Johnson. From left, Afua Bruce, Johnson, Knatokie Ford, and Payton Iheme. (Photo Credit: OSTP)

A number of exciting developments seek to change not only the way history has been written, but also help shape the future of who constitutes America’s STEM workforce. In 2014, the White House unveiled the Untold History of Women in Science and Technology site where female leaders from across the Administration share stories of their personal STEM ‘sheroes.’ Earlier this year, Wikipedia, which is among the leading online educational resources, launched a Year of Science initiative that aims to not only improve the quality of science articles on Wikipedia, but also expand Wikipedia’s representation of women scientists. Earlier this year, OSTP held an “Edit-A-Thon” during Black History Month to help source and share inspiring stories of African Americans who made important contributions in STEM.

Role models play an important role in shaping the future aspirations of youth and adults alike—they can help students envision themselves as STEM professionals, enhance perception of STEM careers, and boost confidence in studying STEM subjects. Katherine Johnson’s recognition by President Obama along with the plans to share her story mark a proud moment in American history—she is a role model that we are excited for the world to know.

Knatokie Ford is a Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.

A Star-Spangled Evening on The White House Lawn

As a young girl growing up in Montana, I remember being mesmerized by the stars and by the news of the Apollo 11 mission (which landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon with Michael Collins in orbit). Almost all of us who work in space-related fields have a similar stories to share of being inspired at an early age. President Obama himself has talked about being inspired during his childhood, when his grandfather lifted him on his shoulders so he could wave at astronauts arriving in Hawaii.

It’s the President’s belief that by encouraging more young people to engage with science, technology, engineering, the arts, math, and design we will be able to encourage a new generation of Americans to reach for new heights.

To help capture the imaginations of young people throughout our country, the President hosted a wonderful White House Astronomy Night. Joining the President on the South Lawn of the White House were students, scientists, engineers, makers and astronauts. We were also joined by Americans throughout the country who participated virtually via live stream and at events hosted by national parks, observatories, schools, museums, and astronomy clubs.


Once the sun set, we gathered with the students around telescopes with NASA astronomers and observed some of the stunning spectacles in our night sky. Earlier in the day, we shared some images from some of our space-based telescopes on the White House’s Instagram feed.

Perhaps one of these students will someday be the first American to set foot on Mars. Five years ago, President Obama came to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida and laid out a transformative agenda for NASA, highlighted by a Journey to Mars that will culminate in sending American astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s.

Today, we are closer than ever before in human history to sending our astronauts to Mars, and it quite possibly will be one of the amazing students I met at astronomy night that will take that first step, or who will provide the logistical support, design, orbital calculations, imagination, persistence, or vision to ensure mission success.

As our nation continues along our Journey to Mars, it is absolutely essential that more and more of our fellow citizens study the “STEM” disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math. That’s why the President has proposed preparing 100,000 new STEM teachers over the next decade, while broadening participation to inspire a more diverse STEM talent pool.

Monday, the President spoke to Astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren, who are aboard the International Space Station (ISS), and we saw the ISS pass overhead in the DC night sky. In just a couple weeks NASA will mark 15 years of continuous human habitation aboard the Station.


This means that kids younger than 15 have never known a day that human beings were not living and working, continuously in space. In the future, American children might never know a day where human beings are not pushing ever deeper into space.

If we are able to encourage a new generation of kids passionate about STEM subjects (and I include arts and design as well), then, as the President has said, “we will not only extend humanity’s reach in space — we will strengthen America’s leadership here on Earth.”

More Links:

#AskNASA Chat with NASA commercial crew astronauts.

Photos from Astronomy Night 2015.

Video of the President’s remarks at Astronomy Night.


Proving Amelia Earhart Right

Amelia Earhart is reported to have professed: “Never do things others can and will do, if there are things others cannot do or will not do.” All across our country, hardworking NASA employees and contractors live these words on a daily basis. They are turning science fiction into fact and expanding the horizons of human possibility.

I’ve had the honor of working with members of the NASA community for the past three decades, and since formally joining Team NASA in May, I’ve made it a priority to visit the NASA workforce and to see our centers and facilities throughout the country.

Having the opportunity to speak with NASA employees and to hear firsthand about the world-changing work they are doing has been nothing short of inspirational and remarkable.

Most recently, I had the chance to visit the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and the Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field and Plum Brook Station in Ohio.

At both centers, our teams are making significant and substantial progress to advance NASA’s Journey to Mars – from Team Goddard’s work on MAVEN and Sample Analysis at Mars to the progress being made on the next generation of Solar Electric Propulsion at Glenn.

At Glenn, NASA teams are doing important work to further our goals for making flight safer, cleaner, and quieter. I was really impressed by the research to simulate the impact of ice crystals on jet engines in the Propulsion Systems Laboratory. Glenn is a big part of the reason we’re able to say that “NASA is with you when you fly.”

The work of Goddard’s teams on marquee missions like the Hubble and James Webb telescopes, contributes (and will continue to contribute) breakthrough scientific understanding of our solar system and beyond.

At NASA, we are, to paraphrase President Obama, reaching farther into our solar system at the very same time we are strengthening our nation’s leadership here at home. When our astronauts put their feet on Martian soil in the 2030s, we’ll be able to look back at this time knowing we laid the groundwork.


Embracing the “Grandest of Challenges”

There is a new consensus emerging in the scientific community around NASA’s plan, timetable, and vision for sending American astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. Our teams at the Stennis Space Center, the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Michoud Assembly Facility are a big part of the reason why.

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman watches an RS-25 engine test at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.  Photo credit: NASA/Stennis
NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman watches an RS-25 engine test at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Photo credit: NASA/Stennis

I recently had the opportunity to attend the successful test of the RS-25 rocket engine at Stennis. Nicknamed the “Ferrari of rocket engines,” it is a critical component of the Space Launch System (SLS), which will someday launch our astronauts to deep space, and eventually to the Red Planet itself.

I also had the chance to visit with the very talented women and men of Marshall and its Michoud Assembly Facility (where the SLS is being assembled). They showed me demonstrations of some of the innovative things they are doing to advance the SLS, support the astronauts and their scientific experiments aboard the International Space Station, and advance technologies like composites, which drive exploration.

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman visits the Marshall Space Flight Center's Environmental Control and Life Support System facility. Photo credit: NASA/Marshall
NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman visits the Marshall Space Flight Center’s Environmental Control and Life Support System facility. Photo credit: NASA/Marshall

All in all, our NASA teams are doing some of the most impressive work anywhere on Earth to support exploration, discovery, and technology off of it.

This work is impressive for both its “outputs” and its “inputs.” What I mean by this is that not only are we delivering some game-changing results, we’re also changing the way we work together across sectors to turn science fiction into science fact.

At Stennis for example, more than 40 resident federal, state, academic and private organizations and numerous technology-based companies are all innovating in the same place. You can feel the energy in the air.

The soccer star Mia Hamm (who grew up only about 3 hours away from Marshall), once said that “there are always new, grander challenges to confront, and a true winner will embrace each one.”

I am so proud to work alongside the people of Stennis, Marshall and Michoud, as they continue to embrace the grandest of challenges, reach for new heights, and work to expand humanity’s presence in the solar system while strengthening America’s leadership here on Earth.

Visiting NASA Innovators in California

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Armstrong Flight Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. These two innovative hubs are unique. At the same time they share the larger mission of NASA — to propel us on our journey to Mars and drive technologies that advance our missions and also improve life on Earth.

At JPL, center director Dr. Charles Elachi showed me the scale model of the Mars Curiosity rover. It’s like being next to this intrepid explorer! Later I also got to see Mission Operations, where so many great missions have returned their first data and images to Earth, and where we have celebrated many successes towards expanding the frontier of human achievement. It was a thrill to see the work that JPL is doing for the Mars 2020 rover, which will study the rocks on the Martian surface to search for signs of microbial life and help us understand how resources such as oxygen may be extracted from the soil in the future. All of our Mars missions are helping pave the way for human missions to the Red Planet. At JPL, you can definitely see that intersection between science and human exploration — both in science and technology development.

It was a great pleasure to visit with JPL’s Earth science team. Of course, a primary focus of NASA research is studying our own planet and continuing to improve our understanding of the dynamic global system.

Armstrong – auspiciously celebrating the birthday last week of namesake Neil Armstrong – is home to strong science as well as aeronautics under the leadership of center director David McBride. It was great to be onsite close to the place where so many space shuttle landings took place. It is also a place where so many aeronautics innovations are happening right now, such as recent work on engine health. Armstrong’s Flight Opportunities Program is doing cutting edge work, such as drop tests for future sample return missions and suborbital opportunities that help us prove technologies before they have to go to the harsh environment of space. At Armstrong, they’re supporting commercial launches that are happening right now out of the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Both Armstrong and JPL have their own personality, and I was happy to get to know both of these West Coast innovators better. The tour continues!

Reaching New Horizons at Ames

Even at a place like NASA, where our hardworking women and men are accustomed to reaching new heights, last week was special. It seemed like our entire country was taken with the dazzling new images of Pluto that were sent to us from billions of miles away by New Horizons.

After 3 billion miles and more than 9 years in space, New Horizons became the longest duration mission ever to reach its science target, and because of this, we’ve been able to receive the most detailed-close-up images and measurements of Pluto ever. For our country, this means that we are the first nation to reach Pluto, and we are the only nation to have completed an initial survey of our solar system. Our science and engineering exploration efforts represent remarkable new opportunities for learning, understanding, and innovating.

New Horizons truly was a team effort – an effort that spanned multiple states and sectors.

Many of the talented team members that made this mission possible work at NASA’s Ames Research Center, and I had the opportunity to meet with several of them last week, during my “homecoming” to Ames. I say homecoming because I spent every summer from 1989 through 1992 at Ames performing my Ph.D. research on Extravehicular Activity and new technologies to allow for mobile spacewalks.

In addition to meeting with some very dedicated members of the New Horizons team, I also met with folks who are innovating in all sorts of amazing ways. I was so impressed with the team at the NASA Advanced Supercomputing Facility and with all the cutting edge robotics research going on at Ames (I got to drive, but didn’t crash the planetary rover on a >40 downward slope!).

The work being performed at Ames on cutting-edge aeronautics research – including Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Air Traffic Management, and the unequalled Arcjet facility – is nothing short of remarkable.

I very much enjoyed meeting with the team at the National Full-Scale Aerodynamic Complex and the Air Traffic Management Lab, where I saw a demonstration of the Terminal Spacing and Sequencing tool. This could not be more important at a time when our skies are growing more crowded by the day. We like to emphasize that ‘NASA is with you when you fly.

Of course, the people of Ames are doing important work to advance NASA’s Journey to Mars. Their work on the Orion spacecraft and space life sciences are reasons that we’re closer to sending human beings to Mars than ever before in the history of science and exploration.

One of my heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt once said that the “future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” The women and men of NASA Ames clearly believe in the beauty of their dreams – and it shows. I’m very much looking forward to continuing to work with you and all of the NASA team as we continue to reach for new heights, to expand humanity’s presence into space, and to strengthen America’s leadership here on Earth.

A Dynamic Space Station Advances Our Journey to Mars

This week, I join dozens of scientists and engineers from around the world in an International Space Station Research and Development Conference that will not only attract new innovators to our work, but also showcase the diversity of efforts going on right now that make the station so indispensable in our journey to Mars.

I’ve been a big supporter of the station since long before the first component ever launched to orbit. Why? Because it’s vital that humans learn to live and work in space over the long-term, and as a researcher I always yearned to fly an experiment on ISS.

Now, some 250 miles overhead, astronauts are conducting critical research every day that is not possible on Earth. That research is improving our lives and bringing us closer to a goal humans have dreamt of for centuries — to reach Mars. We’re learning new things about our planet as the ISS expands its capabilities for Earth science, and we’re facilitating the growth of a robust commercial market in low-Earth orbit for research, technology development and human and cargo transportation. And we’ve built a historic model for global cooperation.

Today, the station is our springboard to Mars. On ISS we’re testing new technologies for going farther and evaluating critical human health issues. Astronaut Scott Kelly is now in the middle of a one year mission that is comparing his vital signs to those of his brother Mark on Earth. It’s a first in research to help us carry out longer duration human missions to deep space.

Since 2012, much of the station’s research has been carried to orbit by our U.S. commercial cargo providers Orbital ATK and SpaceX. While both companies have recently experienced setbacks, we’re very confident both will return to flight soon to continue this important work.

The commercial cargo program was designed to accommodate loss of cargo vehicles, and we will continue operation of the station in a safe and effective way as we continue to use it as our test bed for preparing for longer duration missions farther into the solar system.

Both SpaceX and Orbital have demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in their first cargo resupply missions to the station, and we know they can replicate that success. This is a reminder that spaceflight is an incredible challenge, but we learn from each success and each setback.These early mishaps in the commercial cargo program will help us understand our systems even better and strengthen our resolve to once more launch astronauts from the United States on the systems of American companies.

In the next few years, SpaceX and Boeing will send our crews to orbit from the United States, increasing the size of space station crews to seven and potentially doubling the amount of crew time to conduct research for all of humanity. That’s incredibly exciting news for all of us who benefit from the International Space Station, which is to say – everyone on Earth.

I know I’m not the only one looking forward to the dialogue and exchange at this conference and the chance to learn new things about our incredible space station. It’s a catalyst for our future, and it’s leveraging today’s innovation for our journey to Mars.

Reaching for New Heights at Langley

From aviation to asteroids to earth science; from advanced composites to autonomous aircraft to bug guts, the men and women of the Langley Research Center are doing amazing things every day – continuing a legacy that spans a century. Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with many of them during an all-hands meeting.

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman, second from left, visits the Langley Research Center and the ISAAC robot. Photo credit: NASA_Langley
NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman, second from left, visits the Langley Research Center and the ISAAC robot. Photo credit: NASA_Langley

While I’ve only been on the job as Deputy Administrator for a relatively short time, I’ve been a part of NASA’s extended family for decades, and in fact, my second and third spaceflight experiments were funded by Langley under the direction of the great Sherwin Beck. What I’ve long admired about the people at this Center is that the work they do is so cutting edge – and it can have a real impact on all our lives.

Take for example their work on heat shields and thermal protection systems. Next week a team of Langley engineers are headed to Canada to test personal fire shelters with the U.S. Forest Service.

I had the opportunity to tour another example first hand – Boeing’s 757 ecoDemonstrator airplane – which the company flew in partnership with NASA in order to test technologies that can make air travel, cleaner, quieter and even safer than it is today (even as our skies are more crowded).

One of the potential areas for cost savings is insect repellent. As my NASA colleague Christopher Wohl told the Daily Press newspaper, by reducing insert residue (or in less technical terms “bug guts”) from planes’ surfaces “the impact of that across the entire aviation industry can be really enormous.”

I also had the opportunity to talk with Langley team members about the important work they are performing to advance our Journey to Mars efforts. I saw demonstrations of robotic arm grapple research for our Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), an incredible robot named ISAAC (Integrated Structural Assembly of Advanced Composites) to further novel composite layups and manufacturing, and impressive unmanned aircraft systems at Langley’s autonomy incubator, which reminded me of a creative campus environment.

I very much enjoyed meeting with senior leadership and new employees and interns alike. The people of Langley are such a big part of the reason that we’re able to say “NASA is with you when you fly” and they are impacting our Journey to Mars and our work to reaffirm America’s leadership here on Earth. How lucky all of us are to be part of such a great team here at NASA who continue to reach for new heights for the benefit of humankind.

An Impressive Team at the Johnson Space Center

What an impressive team we have in Houston!  The best part of my job as Deputy Administrator is the opportunity to meet with the incredible employees that make NASA the special place that it is. As part of my visits to every NASA center, I had a chance to meet with inspiring folks at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) on Monday, and to talk with them about the work they are doing to move our Journey to Mars forward.

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman visits NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston June 8, 2015.
NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman (left) visits NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston June 8, 2015. Photo credit: James Blair/NASA.

It was a bit of a homecoming for me.  Through the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with NASA colleagues at JSC on everything from my first Shuttle experiment on STS-42 to assess astronaut workload and ergonomics; to my NASA-Mir flight experiment (1996-1998); to recent work on preventing astronaut injuries during EVA training.

During my visit, Director Ellen Ochoa and Program Manager Mark Geyer showed me a mock up of the Orion spacecraft – which will transport American astronauts to deep space in the not-too-distant future.  Dr. Ochoa and I also had the opportunity to spend some quality time with “Robonaut,” a state-of-the-art “humanoid” robot – built and designed by the team at JSC – to work alongside our astronauts in space. Earlier in the day, we talked to the teams who are involved with designing next generation spacesuits and life support systems, passions of mine.

On a personal note, I very much enjoyed meeting some of the younger, recently-hired NASA employees (along with a few of my former students!), who represent the future of our agency and space exploration.  When American astronauts reach Mars in the 2030s I have no doubt that they will be a big part of the reason why.

With December’s successful flight test of Orion, to the exciting research taking place that will make crewed missions to Mars possible (including the One-Year Crew and twin studies) to all the advances the JSC team is making on developing the technologies to drive exploration, these are exciting times for JSC and for the entire NASA family.

Building on the Legacy of Our First Spacewalk

Fifty years ago today, Ed White took one of the first and most significant steps on a journey that will culminate on the surface of Mars. You see, he became the first American astronaut in history to conduct a spacewalk.

Ed White conducts America's first spacewalk
During the Gemini 4 mission on June 3, 1965, Ed White became the first American to conduct a spacewalk. The spacewalk started at 3:45 p.m. EDT on the third orbit when White opened the hatch and used the hand-held maneuvering oxygen-jet gun to push himself out of the capsule.

Having worked on the research and development of these smallest of spacecraft – the spacesuit — I can personally attest to the significance of this milestone. In many ways, Ed’s “Extravehicular Activity” or “EVA” as it’s known in space-lingo, was the modern day equivalent of Lewis & Clark’s portage across the Gates of the Mountains during exploration of the West. He had ventured into uncharted territory.

As a new consensus continues to emerge around NASA’s plan and timetable for American astronauts exploring cis-lunar space in the 2020s (where they will no doubt participate in spacewalks) and the Red Planet In the 2030s, Ed White’s 23 minute spacewalk is a big part of the reason why Mars is now within our sights after 50 years of spacewalking exploration.

Over the years, NASA has perfected the art and science of the spacewalk, and many astronauts have followed in Ed’s footsteps, from Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11 to Kathy Sullivan on STS-41G to Jerry Ross and Jim Newman, who began assembly of the International Space Station, to record holders Michael Lopez-Alegria (who undertook 10 spacewalks) and Suni Williams (who holds the records for most spacewalks and most spacewalk time by a female astronaut). The incredible achievements during the Hubble Space Telescope servicing repair missions highlight EVA’s criticality to mission success.

In the days, years, and decades ahead, we will continue to push EVA technological advancements as we move forward on our Journey to Mars.