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Katherine Johnson: African American Mathematician and Physicist


Katherine Johnson - African American mathematician and physicist
Katherine Johnson (August 26, 1918 – February 24, 2020) was an African American mathematician and physicist whose significant contributions were instrumental in the success of the early space program of the United States, particularly during the early years of NASA. Image courtesy of https://www.nasa.gov/centers-and-facilities/langley/katherine-johnson-biography/

 

WOMEN WHO DESERVE TO BE CELEBRATED: As part of its social equity agenda, Eco Profit is commencing a Blog series featured on selected women from history. The thought behind this is driven by the lack of acknowledgement in society for many of the dynamic discoveries and achievements of women from the past, including the recent past. Unfortunately, in many cases the term Matilda effect applies which is the attribution of the achievements of women to their male colleagues.


 

Katherine Johnson (August 26, 1918 – February 24, 2020) was an African American mathematician and physicist whose significant contributions were instrumental in the success of the early space program of the United States, particularly during the early years of NASA. Her remarkable career and contributions broke down barriers of race and gender in the field of mathematics and space exploration.


Here are some key aspects of her life and achievements adapted:


Katherine Coleman was born on August 26, 1918, in West Virginia. Katherine’s parents were determined their four children would complete college. This was an ambitious goal for a Black family in the South. At that time, the school system was segregated. The Black school had only two rooms for seven grades. And, in order to reach the nearest Black high school, the Coleman family had to move 130 kilometres. 

Katherine was incredibly smart and finished high school when she was just 13 years old. After high school, she enrolled at the historically Black college, West Virginia State. where she made quick work of the school’s math curriculum and found a mentor in math professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a PhD in mathematics. She graduated with highest honours in 1937 and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia. In 1939, when West Virginia decided to quietly integrate its graduate schools, West Virginia State’s president, Dr. John W. Davis, selected her and two men to be the first black students offered spots at the state’s flagship school, West Virginia University. She left her teaching job and enrolled in the graduate math program. At the end of the first session, however, she decided to leave school to start a family with her first husband, James Goble. She and Jimmie soon had three daughters, born in 1940, 1943, and 1944.


 By 1947, Katherine returned to teaching with Jimmie. During summer break, Jimmie worked as a chauffeur and Katherine as a maid because their teaching salaries were not enough to cover their expenses. In 1951, Katherine and Jimmie’s home caught fire. Looking for a fresh start, they moved to Newport News, Virginia. Jimmie’s sister lived there. Also, there were federal government facilities nearby where Katherine might find work.


Katherine soon learned of a job opportunity that seemed too good to be true. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring women with math experience. The women were called computers because they completed all of the calculations for the male engineers on staff. At this time, the United States was involved in a cold war with Russia. Both countries were eager to create aircraft for national defence. And NACA’s computers were critical to complete this work.


Research mathematician Katherine Johnson at her desk at NASA Langley Research Center with a globe, or “Celestial Training Device,” in 1962. (NASA)
Research mathematician Katherine Johnson at her desk at NASA Langley Research Center with a globe, or “Celestial Training Device,” in 1962. (NASA)

Although NACA was segregated, it was required by federal law that federal government employers not discriminate on the basis of race. Therefore, NACA had two divisions of computers—one for white women and another for Black women. The hiring requirements for Black computers were different than for white computers. Black computers needed college degrees and high GPAs. White computers did not. Because of this, the engineers often preferred working with the more knowledgeable Black computers. Katherine drove to the NACA facility and requested an application. One year later, NACA offered her a job. 


On Katherine’s first day, she was amazed. She was in a room full of Black women professionals, all with their own desks and computing machines. Two weeks after she started, an engineer walked into the Black computers’ office seeking help. Katherine was singled out by her boss, who said Katherine was one of the brightest computers on staff.


Katherine followed the engineer into an office full of white men. One of the team leaders asked her to review a set of calculations. Katherine immediately caught an error. She went to him and pointed out the mistake. Even though he was embarrassed, he admitted she was right. By speaking up and demonstrating her exceptional analytical skills, Katherine proved her value. Most computers were moved from project to project. Because the engineers did not want to lose her, Katherine remained a part of their team. 


Katherine found ways to fit into the segregated office. She refused to obey the segregated bathroom rules and avoided eating in the segregated cafeteria. She played cards and talked about aviation magazines with her white male colleagues during breaks. She even successfully demanded that she be allowed to attend high-level briefings. 


“We needed to be assertive as women in those days – assertive and aggressive – and the degree to which we had to be that way depended on where you were. I had to be. In the early days of NASA women were not allowed to put their names on the reports – no woman in my division had had her name on a report. I was working with Ted Skopinski and he wanted to leave and go to Houston ... but Henry Pearson, our supervisor – he was not a fan of women – kept pushing him to finish the report we were working on. Finally, Ted told him, "Katherine should finish the report, she's done most of the work anyway." So, Ted left Pearson with no choice; I finished the report and my name went on it, and that was the first time a woman in our division had her name on something.”

In 1956, Jimmie died from a brain tumour. Katherine was devastated. She turned to her work and her daughters for comfort and stability. 


After Russia launched two satellites into orbit, NACA became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The new goal was to put Americans into space. To achieve this, Katherine sometimes worked all day, stopped home to check on her daughters, and then returned to the office at night.


In 1958, Katherine met a man named Jim Johnson. Jim respected Katherine’s work and enjoyed spending time with her daughters. They married in 1959.


Meanwhile, Katherine was helping to figure out how to send an astronaut into orbit around the Earth. One of the biggest challenges was determining where the spacecraft would land. Katherine volunteered to calculate the path. Her final report on the topic was the first of its kind from the Aerospace Mechanics Division authored by a woman.


John Glenn
John Glenn was the first American to orbit Earth in 1962. He told NASA that if ‘the girl’ said the math was right, he was ready to fly. Image courtesy of https://thisdayintechhistory.com/02/20/john-glen-becomes-first-american-to-orbit-earth/

Two years later, astronaut John Glenn was preparing to be the first American to orbit the planet. NASA used a series of mechanical computers to calculate his path. But these new computers were not always reliable. After reviewing the plan, John made a specific request. He told NASA that if “the girl” said the math was right, he was ready to fly. “The girl” John had in mind was Katherine. She spent almost two days calculating the path by hand. This included trajectory analysis, calculating launch windows, and ensuring the safe re-entry of spacecraft.


On February 20, 1962, John successfully orbited the planet three times and landed safely on Earth. Katherine’s math stood up to the test.


When President Kennedy challenged NASA to land on the moon, Katherine was a key figure on the team. She helped figure out how to launch a spacecraft into the moon’s orbit and how to connect an orbiting craft with the one that landed on the moon. Her work also included advances in celestial navigation.


In July 1969, the United States landed on the moon. But Katherine was neither at home nor in the office. She finished her calculations for the flight much earlier and was attending a college reunion. As the group crowded around a hotel TV to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, few of them knew how critically important Katherine was to that moment. 


When Katherine returned from the reunion, the moon landing was far from her mind. She was already working on a different project—calculations for sending a person to Mars!

Over the next 17 years, Katherine continued to work tirelessly at NASA. She ensured all three of her daughters graduated from college. She tutored students and advocated for better access to STEM education for Black girls.


This is an excerpt from WOMEN & THE AMERICAN STORY as part of the New-York Historical Society, museum &  library.





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