Katherine Johnson, an African-American mathematician is one of the little-sung heroines of the American Space Programme, being coordinated by NASA.
Johnson, who is 99 years-old stepped out on Friday to be honoured by the agency, which fittingly named a computational centre after her. It was the second honour bestowed on her in the last two years.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Katherine G Johnson Computational Research Facility at the Langley research centre in Hampton, Virginia, the 99-year-old was honoured as a trailblazing “human computer”.
According to a report by The Guardian of London, her calculations influenced some of the most important missions of the space age.
In an extraordinary career, Johnson, astrophysicist and space scientist, defied racial and gender constraints and was involved with many of the greatest achievements in space.
“Today all of these things seem inevitable,” said Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of Hidden Figures, which profiles Johnson and her fellow “human computers” and was made into a film last year. “But without her past full of diverging roads and choices that made all the difference we would not be standing on the brink of this future.”
According to her biography, published by NASA two years ago, she was born in 1918 in the little town of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
She became a research mathematician, who by her own admission, was simply fascinated by numbers and smart to boot. By the time she was 10 years old, she was a high school freshman–a truly amazing feat in an era when school for African-Americans normally stopped at eighth grade for those could indulge in that luxury.
“I counted the steps,” she said in an oral history archived by the National Visionary Leadership Project. “I counted the plates that I washed. And I knew how many steps there were from our house to church.”
Her father, Joshua, was determined that his bright little girl would have a chance to meet her potential. He drove his family 120 miles to Institute, West Virginia, where she could continue her education through high school. Johnson’s academic performance proved her father’s decision was the right one: Katherine skipped through grades to graduate from high school at 14, from college at 18.
In 1953, after years as a teacher and later as a stay-at-home mom, she began working for NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. The NACA had taken the unusual step of hiring women for the tedious and precise work of measuring and calculating the results of wind tunnel tests in 1935. In a time before the electronic computers we know today, these women had the job title of “computer.” During World War II, the NACA expanded this effort to include African-American women.
The NACA was so pleased with the results that, unlike many organisations, they kept the women computers at work after the war. By 1953 the growing demands of early space research meant there were openings for African-American computers at Langley Research Centre’s Guidance and Navigation Department – and Katherine Johnson found the perfect place to put her extraordinary mathematical skills to work.
As a computer, she calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Even after NASA began using electronic computers, John Glenn requested that she personally recheck the calculations made by the new electronic computers before his flight aboard Friendship 7 – the mission on which he became the first American to orbit the Earth. She continued to work at NASA until 1986 combining her math talent with electronic computer skills. Her calculations proved as critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program, as they did to those first steps on the country’s journey into space.
From honorary doctorates to the 1967 NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team award (for pioneering work in the field of navigation problems supporting the five spacecraft that orbited and mapped the moon in preparation for the Apollo program) Katherine Johnson has led a life positively filled with honours.
Johnson’s story – and the largely untold history of contributions by black women during the space race – was told on the big screen last year. Hidden Figures stars among others Taraji P Henson (who plays Johnson), Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.
The movie, mostly set in 1961 and 1962, highlights the indignities endured by black Nasa employees despite the agency’s reliance on them. In the movie, after Johnson joins the main research team, she is forced to drink coffee from a pot labelled “colored” and walk half a mile to use a restroom for “colored” women.
In a pre-taped video played at the dedication ceremony on Friday, Johnson laughed when she was asked how she felt about a research facility being named in her honour.
“You want my honest answer?” she said. “I think they’re crazy. I was excited for something new but give credit to everybody who helped. I didn’t do anything alone but try to go to the root of the question and succeed there.”
She advised aspiring scientists and mathematicians to find a career that they enjoy and credited her success simply to an enthusiasm for solving complex equations.
“I liked work,” Johnson said. “I liked 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.”