From the Shadows to the Stars

“I felt most proud of the success of the Apollo mission. They were going to the moon and I computed the path to get there.” There’s a good chance that you hear an old white man saying this, maybe while sitting in a leather armchair and dressed modestly to hide the privilege. You’d also be off by a million miles.

She is a determined, brave woman of colour who broke all boundaries to get where she is today; a Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee. She is Katherine Johnson.

Ever since her birth in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in 1918, she has never been short of brilliant. She was much beyond her years; she was in high school by thirteen and college by eighteen. She was the third African American to obtain a PhD in Mathematics, with the help of her mentor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor and previously, Angie Turner King. After graduating with honours, in 1937, she took up teaching at a black public school, subsequently, leaving for a graduate math program. She quit after a year to focus on starting a family with her husband, James Goble.

In 1952, news about open positions at the all-black West Area Computing section at NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, came to her with welcoming arms. She was positioned in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division under the supervision of mathematician Dorothy Vaughan. She was referred to there, as one of the “computers who wore skirts” or West Computers. She analysed data from flight test, read data from black boxes and worked out mathematical tasks to investigate the cause of a crash at the onset of turbulence. This chapter of her life came to a close with the death of her husband due to a brain tumour, in 1956.

Her “computer” could not be laid off, so she was soon reassigned to the Guidance and Control Division of Langley’s Flight Research Division. This seemed like the dream job, but naturally, it came with its difficulties. Times were different, racial and gender segregation was very prominent. This division was staffed mainly by white male engineers. According to the federal workplace code, the African American women had to work, eat and use restrooms separate from their white coworkers. More often than not, they had to go out of their way to ensure that they followed the code, when deadlines from their actual job piled up on them. However, Johnson valued her intellect and her passion towards the job caused her to overlook the barriers.

NACA was succeeded by NASA, and she was among the first employees to be hired by it. She worked as a technologist for the spacecraft controls branch. Her trajectory analysis for Freedom 7 in 1961, helped make Alan Shepard the first American in space. She calculated launch windows precisely, and also whipped up backup navigation charts for the astronauts in case of electronic failures. Even as the racial and gender segregations started to gradually disappear, the mindset of the people around her was no different. She had to be assertive and aggressive to get what she deserved. She became the first woman in the division to receive credit as an author of a research report, which was, “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position” coauthored by Ted Skopinski.

In 1962, NASA prepared for John Glenn’s orbital mission which was extremely complex and included the construction of worldwide communications network. Electronic computers were still a new domain, and while they had been programmed with orbital equations that control the entire trajectory of the mission, the astronauts could not grow to trust the machines with their life. Glenn asked the engineers to “get the girl” to crunch the numbers and verify the calculations of the machine. “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” Glenn said. The mission was a big success and put America in the space race as a major contender.

During the Apollo era, Johnson ran numbers for Apollo 11, to make sure the lunar lander and the command module interacted properly. During the Apollo 13 mission in 1970, an explosion compromised the safety of the astronauts in the command module, so they skipped the moon landing and headed back in the lunar lander, all thanks to Johnson’s emergency procedures.

She retired from NASA in 1986, after 33 years of computing, producing 26 research reports and making her life worthwhile and an inspiration for generations to come.

“Do your best, but like it. I like the stars and the stories we were telling, and it was a joy to contribute to the literature that was going to be coming out. But little did I think it would go this far.” – Katherine Johnson.



Second Year EEE

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