Black History Month, Katherine Johnson – “Hidden Figures”

With the release and popularity of the movie “Hidden Figures” and this being Black History month, I thought that copying a post written by guest blogger Yahteebutterfly would be appropriate.

By Guest Blogger Yahtzeebutterfly

Katherine Johnson, the African American mathematician who calculated the trajectory of NASA’s first manned spacecraft was born on  August 26, 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.”
It was Dr. Katherine Johnson who calculated the launch window and trajectory of NASA’s first manned space flight of Alan Shepard in 1961.

“Fifty-four years ago on May 5, 1961 only 23 days after Yuri Gagarin of the then-Soviet Union became the first person in space, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard launched at 9:34 a.m. EDT aboard his Freedom 7 capsule powered by a Redstone booster to become the first American in space. His historic flight lasted 15 minutes, 28 seconds.”

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:
“The Mercury Space Tracking Network plotboard in Mercury Control shows the positions of each of the Network stations, as well as the groundtrack of Friendship 7’s three orbits.”

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.”

Posted on 02/13/2017, in Black History Month and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    Honor where honored is due! Amazing woman … incredible movie!
    A ‘must watch’ …. all should know about Dr. Johnson’s story & her incomparable contributions!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Yes long overdue, but! . . .the real issue is not credit given, but why waste brilliant minds on solving math problems in competition to get no where, or to create more destructive problems down the road, problems that this generation has to live with! Look at California! The people down river of that dam are fleeing like roaches! Why? Didn’t they calculate and take in to consideration what rain could do?!! No!! Because they had their eyes in space, where men don’t belong, and have no business trying to get to! The Holy Scriptures, ‘our guide book’ state’s: ‘ the earth he has given to the sons of men, but the heavens belong to God!’. Solve the riddles of earth and how to live down here in peace; how about calculating that! Toni.


  3. Dear Xena,

    I have seen this movie 2x. It is a must see. The part where her boss breaks down a sign for the White bathroom so Dr. Johnson could use the closest one, reminds us how times were so different, not that long ago.He did this after she explained why she had to take 40 minute breaks because it took her that long to find a colored bathroom. .

    It is too bad that her Dad was not able to better use his talent because of prejudice.

    Hugs, Gronda

    Liked by 3 people

    • yahtzeebutterfly

      Hi Gronda 🙂

      “It is too bad that her Dad was not able to better use his talent because of prejudice.”

      I agree.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Gronda,
      I anxiously await to see it. On Demand has me spoiled. 🙂 I like being able to replay to hear parts I couldn’t hear at first, or see scenes that I like.
      Eating popcorn

      Liked by 2 people

  4. It’s a shame we don’t hear about these magnificent persons along with the other well-known figureheads. Without people like, Katherine Johnson, there would be little if any progress and the well-knowns who get all the glory would not exist at all. It’s such a shame. More should be done to exalt them.

    Liked by 2 people

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