I first wrote about Katherine Johnson in June 2015. Since then a movie, Hidden Figures, has debuted, telling the story of her work behind the scenes as an African-American female mathematician for NASA.
After viewing the film, I felt compelled to repost my June 2015 blog story.
The next time you look up at the night sky, smitten by the pale opalescence of the moon, I don’t want you to think of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, or Michael Collins, the astronauts of the historic Apollo 11 space flight that landed mankind on the moon. I want you to think of Katherine Coleman Johnson, the woman who calculated the trajectories necessary for the success of that historic flight.
Born in 1918, the youngest of four siblings in an African-American family in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Katherine had an aptitude and fascination with numbers from her earliest years. While her family walked to services, Katherine counted each and every step between their house and the church. By the time she turned six, she had entered school directly into second grade, due to her mathematical abilities. Later she was promoted from 4th grade to 6th grade, based on her outstanding academic performance. At home, she would always finish arithmetic work quickly, and then offer to help her older siblings with theirs.
Because the local public schools provided only an 8th-grade education for black students, Katherine’s father moved the family 125 miles away to the Charleston, WVA area. There, all four of his children enrolled in the West Virginia Collegiate Institute, a black institution that allowed students to complete a high school education and then transition to the college.
Katherine was ten when she entered the high school and fourteen when she started college with a full academic scholarship for room, board, and tuition.
While in college she came under the tutelage of W.W. Schiefflin Claytor, the third African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics. Recognizing her incredible aptitude with numbers, he counseled her to take every course in math that the school offered and then he set up a special class in analytical geometry; Katherine was the only student.
By the time she graduated summa cum laude with a dual Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics and French, Katherine had prepared herself for a career in analytical math. The problem was that no such job existed for black females in 1936. Deciding she could encourage young people to pursue their talents, she became a teacher for the next sixteen years.
In the early 1950s the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA, opened up applications for African-American females to work as human computers in their Guidance and Navigation Depart. Katherine applied and was accepted. She and her husband James Francis Goble and their young daughters moved to the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. She would make her mark there, calculating the mathematical equations necessary for successful space projects. Her career at Langley lasted for the next thirty-three years.
Math may have come easy to Katherine Johnson, but life did not. She experienced racism and sexism every day, but she persevered. Losing Jim Goble to brain cancer, she eventually married Colonel James Johnson, a Korean War veteran. Throughout all this, she continued to push at NASA for inclusion in top level meetings within her department.
Eventually, the male engineers started to recognize her extraordinary skill in analytical geometry.
In May 1961 when astronaut Alan Shepard was the first American to travel in space, it was Katherine Johnson who had calculated the computations for the launch window, including his successful return splashdown.
In 1962 mechanical computers were used for the first time to calculate an astronaut’s orbit around the Earth. John Glenn asked Katherine to verify the numbers before he catapulted into space.
During the mid-1960s Katherine worked on a NASA project to plot backup navigational charts to allow astronauts to guide their space ships by the stars, in a case of any electrical failures.
Think of Tom Hanks in Ron Howard’s movie, Apollo 13. One of his classic lines was “Houston; we have a problem.” The spacecraft had malfunctioned, and the astronauts were in peril of not being able to return to Earth. In real life, Jim Lovell uttered those words; but it was Katherine Johnson’s work on the backup procedures and her star charts that helped guide the astronauts safely home.
During her lifetime, she co-authored 25 scientific papers, wrote one of the first textbooks on space flight, and received 11 prominent awards in her field. When we think of the U.S. Space Program, we seldom think of the people like Katherine Johnson who worked for decades behind the scenes for the program to succeed.
The next time you look up at the night sky and find the Man in the Moon, look again; it might just be a woman.
Katherine Johnson was a scientist, a physicist, a mathematician, and a strong woman. As a trailblazer, she opened pathways for every woman who has dreamed of achieving success—pathways that can lead to the moon and beyond.
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~ Linda ~