Katherine Johnson was special from the beginning. She skipped through the grades at school and by the time she was eighteen she was enrolled at West Virginia State College. It was here that Katherine was mentored by Professor Claytor (only the the third African American to earn a PhD in mathematics).
“Many professors tell you that you’d be good at this or that, but they don’t always help you with that career path. Professor Claytor made sure I was prepared to be a research mathematician.”
Professor Claytor even designed a new course called, The analytic geometry of space, to help his young student.
Despite all this talent, after graduation Katherine took up a teaching job as this was the only job available for an African American woman living in a time segregation and misogeny. She married and started a family until a chance meeting in the 1950s at a family function led her to applying for a job at the National Advisory committee for Aeronautics (the precursor for NASA. She was eventually offered a job and she and her family moved to take up this new opportunity.
Using women in computational pools was essentially sexist. Engineers (men) did the clever stuff, while women did the calculations to back up their grand ideas. Unfortunately nobody had told Katherine this was how it worked!
Katherine was told that women didn’t participate in the briefings or attend meetings; she asked if there were a law against it. The answer, of course, was no, and so Katherine began to attend briefings.
It was during 1956 that her husband died from a brain tumour. Then in 1957, Russia launched Sputnik and the Space Race began.
Katherine was involved with the trajectory analysis of the first US manned mission in 1961. The Astronaut was John Glenn. All the trajectory calculations were done by hand. Computers were in existence but they were not considered trustworthy. Katherine co-authored an important paper entitled “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position”. This was the first time a woman had been credited as an author on a report by the Flight Research Division. Her importance at Nasa was further outlined when John Glenn was preparing for a mission to orbit the Earth in 1962. Computers had been programmed with the trajectory of the spaceship but Glenn did not trust them.
Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—Katherine Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand. “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.”
For Katherine her greatest achievement was to come during Apollo 11 and the Moon Landing. It was her calculations which safely guided the Lunar Lander back to the Command and Service Module.
Her contingency calculations for any mishaps during the Apollo missions were key to returning Apollo 13 safely. Katherine also went on to work on the Space Shuttle and published over 26 research papers.
In 2015, at age 97, Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour.
Her life and work was made famous by the movie "Hidden figures" which tells the story of the female African American calculators and their efforts in helping the US win the space race.
Growing up in a time when race and gender were use to segregate and demean, Katherine Johnson was able rise above these obstacles. As a scientist she can be simply granted the accolade of genius and be admired for her groundbreaking work.
Katherine Johnson: A Lifetime of STEM @ blackhistorymonth.org.uk
Katherine Johnson biography @ nasa.org