Happy Birthday Katherine Johnson
By Guest Blogger Yahtzeebutterfly
Katherine Johnson, the African American mathematician who calculated the trajectory of NASA’s first manned spacecraft was born on this day, August 26th, in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
Her father, a farmer and logger who only had a sixth grade education, was a whiz at math. In an interview with Cathy Lewis of WHROTV, Dr. Johnson recalled that her father could listen to a difficult math word-problem and immediately have the answer and that he could determine the number of board feet he could get from a tree just by looking at it. When it came time for high school and college for his four children he began working at a hotel and had extra jobs to support the studies of his four children.
Watching her three siblings enter elementary school before she did, Katherine could hardly wait to attend school. She loved learning and had a special fascination for numbers. She loved counting everything around her, even the number of steps she walked on her way to church. When she finally did attend school, she was such an outstanding student that she was skipped to second grade, and by the time she was 10, she entered high school where mathematician Angie King recognized her mathematical talent and mentored her during those four years.
Katherine Johnson was only 14-years old when she entered West Virginia State College, a historically Black college at the time. One day when she was walking on campus, Professor William W. Shieffelin Claytor approached her and said, “I’m coming back to teach math this year, and if you are not in my class, I will come and find you.” With the goal of helping her to become a research mathematician, Dr. Claytor taught Katherine every mathematics class the college had to offer and then created a special course in the analytic geometry of space which he tailored just for her.
Katherine Johnson graduated college at the age of 18 with a degree in mathematics and one in French. Despite her advanced mathematical training, few job opportunities were available for Black women graduates. She became a teacher and in 1939, she married and stopped teaching in order to raise her three daughters. She only returned to teaching when her husband became ill in the mid 1940’s. Then in 1952 she learned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) located at the Langley facility in Virginia was hiring women with mathematical degrees, and she landed the job in 1953.
During her 2011 WHROTV interview posted above, Dr. Johnson told of her early years (1953 to 1958) at NACA :
“I started [at Langley] working on airplanes because when I went there, that is what it was: The Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.”
Dr. Johnson told of her transition to the Guidance and Control Division of Langley’s Flight Research Division and later to the Spacecraft Controls Branch which occurred in 1958, the year NACA changed its name to NASA:
“When the space program came along, I just happened to be working with guys, and then they had briefings on it. I asked permission to go. And they said, ‘Well, the girls don’t usually go.’ And, I said, “Well, is there a law?’ They said ‘no.’ So then my boss said, ‘Let her go.’
“And, I began attending the briefings. You’re already doing the work, but you didn’t know exactly what it was, and gradually I did more. And, they’d do something that I knew more the geometry of the program all about mapping to here and there. So, it was a very easy transition.”
When computers were used for John Glenn’s 1962 three-orbit space flight, he requested that Dr. Johnson verify the computer.
Dr. Johnson: “When John Glenn was to be the first astronaut to go up into the atmosphere and come back, and they wanted him to come back in a special place. And, that was what I did. I computed his trajectory. But, when he got ready to go up, he [John Glenn] said, ‘Call her. And, if she says the computer is right, I’ll take it.’ “
Interviewer Cathy Lewis : “That’s amazing.”
Dr. Johnson: “It is amazing that he did call and say that the first time he made a trip into the atmosphere and he wanted to arrive at a given place, he wanted me to check it out to be sure the computer was right.”
Honeysucklecreek has NASA’s tracking plotboard of John Glenn’s spaceflight on February 20, 1962 in the Friendship7 spacecraft:
Dr. Johnson also calculated the trajectory for Apollo 11 trip to the moon in July of 1969.
After working 33 years at Langley for NACA and then NASA, Dr. Johnson retired in 1986. In 2014 Dr. Katherine Johnson’s lifetime achievements with NASA were recognized by President Barack Obama who bestowed her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a White House ceremony.
In May of 2016, NASA honored Dr. Katherine Johnson by naming its new computational research building at Langley Research Center after her.
Dr. Katherine Johnson is one of the Black lady mathematicians and scientist that is featured in the upcoming movie “Hidden Figures.” Below is a trailer from the movie.
My favorite quote of Dr. Katherine Johnson:
“If you lose your curiosity, then you stop learning.”
Bibliography links and articles for further reading:
Wikipedia, Katherine Johnson