Without Katherine Johnson, NASA might have waited a lot longer to launch missions to the moon. The pioneering African American mathematician has one of the most impressive and inspiring stories in American history. Johnson and her family are from Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, where school for black children ended in 8th grade. Her father, a farmer, determined to get his family an education. He drove the children 120 miles to attend school and college at Institute, West Virginia. At one point during her upbringing, her father got her mother a job so that she could live in Institute with the children and also attend school, while he continued to support the family on the farm.
Johnson attracted the interest of teachers early on with her work ethic and natural talent for numbers. She graduated high school at age 14 and college at 18. The teachers pointed her in the direction of research mathematics. First, Johnson started as a teacher, earning $65.00 a month. Then, she heard that Langley’s pre-NASA group wanted to hire black women who could work with computers. It was 1958. After just two weeks, she was asked to join with engineers who would go on to form NASA.
Johnson’s job was to conceptualize what was necessary to get into space. “We wrote our own textbook, because there was no other text about space. We just started from what we knew. We had to go back to geometry and figure all of this stuff out. Inasmuch as I was in at the beginning, I was one of those lucky people.”
Johnson calculated the trajectory of Alan Shepherd’s pioneering 1961 trip into space. Johnson explained how it was done. “The early trajectory was a parabola, and it was easy to predict where it would be at any point. Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start. I said, ‘Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.’ That was my forte.”
Eventually computers replaced human calculations for the ever-evolving flights. Then, the asked Johnson to be the person who checked the computer’s calculations. The woman had become a computer whose job was to check the computer.
Johnson worked from NASA from 1953 until 1986. She is still a living embodiment of what can be done with an education. She co-authored 26 papers and speaks frequently to students about her experiences. In 2015, she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, honoring her contributions for women in STEM careers. In 2017, the movie Hidden Figures will explore the legacy of Johnson and the other African American women who were mathematicians at NASA. Taraji P. Henson will play Johnson, with Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer and singer Janelle Monae also on board.
The movie is based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly.
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Originally posted 2016-08-03 15:10:58. Republished by Blog Post Promoter