Katherine Johnson – Mathematician and Space Scientist

Katherine Johnson 

 

“We will always have STEM with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering, and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics”. – Katherine Johnson on the fundamentality of STEM

 

Profile:

Name: Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson

Life: Born 26th August 1918 (100 years old at time of writing).

Degrees:

B.S.: (summa cum laude) in Mathematics and French, West Virginia State College

Occupation: Physicist and mathematician who is known for calculating the trajectories for many NASA missions.

[1][3]

Who is Katherine Johnson?

Katherine Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918 to Joylette and Joshua Coleman, Joylette being a teacher and her father having multiple jobs, working as a lumberman, farmer and handyman. [1]

At the time, Greenbrier County, West Virginia was racially segregated and did not offer public schooling for Black students past the eighth grade, and as a result Joylette and Joshua Coleman had to arrange for Katherine and her three older siblings to be educated at a high school in Institute, West Virginia, an unincorporated community in Kanawha County. [1]

Johnson’s natural talent and affinity for maths was evident at a very early age, and she was admitted into the school on the campus of West Virginia State College when she was just ten years old. [1]

Johnson graduated from this high school at the age of just fourteen, and was admitted into West Virginia State (a historically black college) where she took every single mathematics course offered at West Virginia State.  Her mentors and professors at WVSC included the chemist and mathematician Angie Turner King, one of the first Black women in the States to receive degrees in mathematics and chemistry and also a PhD in mathematics education. Angie Turner King also mentored Margaret Strickland Collins, a Black child prodigy who became a zoologist who specialised in the study of termites. William Schieffelin Claytor was also a mentor to Johnson; he was the third African-American to earn a PhD in mathematics, specialising in topology, and the first to publish a mathematical research journal. Claytor added new maths courses specifically for Johnson, and she graduated summa cum laude with degrees in mathematics and French at the tender age of eighteen from WVSC, meaning she graduated in the top 1-5% of her class. After graduating she became a teacher at a black public high school in Marion, Virginia. [1][2][8]

 

In 1939, Johnson enrolled in a graduate maths program at West Virginia University in Morgantown, and was the first Black woman to do so, however after a year she quit and decided to focus on her family. She was selected by the president of WVSC to be one of three Black students that would be selected to integrate the graduate school after the historic Missouri ex rel. Gaines. v. Canada. Supreme Court ruling that said that states which provided a school to white students had to provide in-state education to black students as well. [1][2]

Research career

Johnson decided to become a research mathematician, however due to the pervasive systematic and open racism present in the States it was a very difficult area of work for Black people, especially Black women, to enter; and a result at first she was relegated to teaching, instead of research. However, at a family gathering in 1952 a relative mentioned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, later transformed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA in 1958) was hiring mathematicians for their Guidance and Navigation division. She was offered a job with them in 1953 and accepted, and was part of the early team at NASA. [1][3]

From 1953 to 1958, Johnson worked as a “human computer” for NACA, which was a term given to people who performed mathematical calculations before electronic computers became commercially available.  Her main job involved reading data from the black boxes of planes and analysing topics such as gust alleviation for aircraft. Johnson was assigned to the Guidance and Control Division of Langley’s Flight Research Division. [1][2][3]

From 1958 until 1986, Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist at the Spacecraft Controls Branch, and during this time headed many incredible missions which took place at NASA. Among them she was instrumental in the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, which took place on the 5th of May, 1961, being key in calculating the trajectory for it.  The space flight, named Freedom 7, was the first human US space flight, the objective of which was to put an astronaut into orbit around the Earth and return them safely. [1][3]

In an interview with Researcher News (the in-house newsletter at Langley), Johnson said:

“The early trajectory was a parabola, and it was easy to predict where it would be at any point. Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start. I said, ‘Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.’ That was my forte.”

Johnson also calculated the launch window for Shepard’s mission, and was responsible for plotting backup navigation charts for the astronauts in case of the failure of the electronics being used. Another amazing moment of her career, which highlighted her talent with regards to her incredible mathematical ability and accuracy, was during the space flight of John Glenn aboard the Friendship 7. This mission made him the first American to orbit the Earth. During this mission, NASA was using electronic computers for the first time to do calculations for his orbit and NASA officials called on Johnson to verify the computer’s numbers. Glenn himself asked for Johnson specifically and expressed his absolute refusal to fly unless Johnson herself verified the calculations, saying “If she says they’re good, I’m ready to go.”

Johnson herself recalls the moment in her interview with Researcher News saying,

You could do much more, much faster on a [machine] computer, but when they went to the [machine] computers, they called over and said, ‘Tell her to check and see if the computer trajectory they had calculated was correct.’ So I checked it and it was correct.” [7]

These calculations were far more difficult than the ones being done prior to the use of electronic computers, and required the mathematics to account for the gravitational pull of celestial bodies, and this being done to incredible accuracy by Johnson showcased not only her exceptional mathematical and engineering abilities, but also her deep understanding of theoretical astrophysics. [6]

From then on, Johnson worked directly with electronic computers, and as the use of these computers became an increasingly vital tool for the work done at NASA, her own accuracy in doing these computations established more and more confidence in the results from the computers.

Another meteoric accomplishment of hers was to calculate the trajectory for Apollo 11’s flight to the Moon in 1969; and in 1970 worked on the Apollo 13 mission, and when the mission was aborted due to the explosion of two oxygen tanks, it was her vital work on backup procedures and charts that gave a path for the crew to return to Earth safely, and she created an observation system that would allow the astronauts to establish their location with complete accuracy. [6]

Regarding the Apollo 13 mission, Johnson recalled in an interview in 2010, that

“Everybody was concerned about getting them [the crew] there. We were concerned about getting them back.” [6]

Johnson then worked on the Space Shuttle program, which accomplished routine Earth-to-orbit crew and cargo transportation from 1981 to 2011, and then on the Earth Resources Satellite (ERS) which were the two first remote sensing satellites launched by the European Space Agency (ESA), the primary mission of them being to monitor Earth’s oceans, ice caps, and costal regions. She then worked on plans with NASA for a mission to Mars, and while working in NASA’s Flight Dynamics Branch at the Langley Research Centre, Johnson helped author the first textbook on space. In total, during her scientific career, Johnson authored or co-authored 26 scientific papers. Johnson retired in 1986 after thirty-three years at the Langley Research Centre and continues to encourage her grandchildren and students to pursue careers in science and technology. [1]

 

 

Johnson
Johnson at NASA in 1966. Source: [1]
Institutional racism/sexism faced

As mentioned previously, Johnson faced institutional racism at an incredibly early age due to racial segregation resulting in her and her siblings being forced to look for schooling outside of Greenbrier County.

After graduating from West Virginia State, Johnson took up a job as an elementary school teacher in Marion, Virginia, and used buses to travel to and from the school.  It was during this period that Johnson experienced racism that she would remember vividly: Katherine felt that the racism in West Virginia was not as overt as that in Virginia, and as such, she recalls a time when as the bus she was on was travelling from West Virginia into Virginia, it came to a halt and all the Black people on board were told to move to the back of it. When the driver said that all the Black people were then to be put into taxis, Katherine outright refused until the driver asked politely. Her stance was indicative of a lifetime refusal to be thought of as less than equal. [5]

At NACA, and then NASA, under the racial segregation laws for the workplace that Woodrow Wilson established in the early 20th century, Johnson and the other Black women “computers” had to use restrooms, eating areas and work spaces that were separate from those of their white peers, with their office labelled “Colored Computers”, and their facilities usually being sub-par in quality compared to the ones their white colleagues used. [1][4]

An example of institutional sexism that Johnson faced was during her time working on the first paper entitled “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position” ( the paper which contained the theory necessary for launching, tracking and returning space vehicles and was used for the famous space flight by Alan Shepard in May 1961 and the flight of John Glenn in February 1962) which she co-authored while working at NASA. Johnson recalled,

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. [6][8]

Katherine also recalls the differences between the black and white female “computers” saying that:

“[The male engineers] preferred the black mathematicians, they said we were better than the white girls. For one thing, all of us had been to college, whereas only some of the white women had.”, indicative of how back then people of colour had to excel in what they were doing in order to be accepted into a job position, whereas white people, who had less of an education, could still be accepted into the same role. [2]

Awards/honours Johnson received

Johnson is widely recognised as being a pioneer in space science and computing and has thus been given many honours and awards: the most notable honours among the numerous list include her being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her outstanding contributions to STEM by President Barack Obama, which is the highest award a civilian can be honoured with. [3][8]

Johnson medal.jpg.png
Katherine Johnson being awarded the Presidential Medal For Freedom by President Barack Obama. Source: [1]
On May 5, 2016, a new 40,000-square-foot building was named “Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility” and it was formally dedicated to Johnson at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. The facility officially opened its doors on September 22, 2017. Johnson attended this event, which also marked the 55th anniversary of astronaut Alan Shepard’s historic rocket launch and splashdown, a success Johnson helped achieve. At the ceremony, deputy director Lewin said this about Johnson: “Millions of people around the world watched Shepard’s flight, but what they didn’t know at the time was that the calculations that got him into space and safely home were done by today’s guest of honor, Katherine Johnson”. During the event, Johnson also received a Silver Snoopy award; often called the astronaut’s award, NASA stated it is given to those “who have made outstanding contributions to flight safety and mission success”. [1][4]

Johnson has also been portrayed in the media in the film Hidden Figures, released in December 2016, which follows Johnson (played by Taraji P.Henson) and two other Black female mathematicians working at NASA, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe respectively). Johnson gave the following comment about the film:

“It was well-done. The three leading ladies did an excellent job portraying us.”

hidden figures real
Katherine Johnson (centre) alongside colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan. Source: https://goo.gl/jXvSE4

A list of awards and honours bestowed upon Katherine Johnson:

Group Achievement Award presented to NASA’s Lunar Spacecraft and Operations team – for pioneering work in the field of navigation supporting the spacecraft that orbited and mapped the moon in preparation for the Apollo program

1971, 1980, 1984, 1985, 1986: NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award

1998, Honorary Doctor of Laws, from SUNY Farmingdale

1999, West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year

2006, Honorary Doctor of Science by the Capitol College, Laurel, Maryland

2010, Honorary Doctorate of Science from Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia

2014, De Pizan Honor from National Women’s History Museum.

2015, NCWIT Pioneer in Tech Award

2015, Presidential Medal of Freedom

2016, Silver Snoopy award from Leland Melvin

2016, Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s Arthur B.C. Walker II Award

2016, Presidential Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from West Virginia Univesity, Morgantown, West Virginia

2017, Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Medal of Honor.

2017, Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in Hampton, Virginia, opened on September 22, 2017, and so dedicated to Johnson.

May 12, 2018, Honorary Doctorate of Science from the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia.

[1]

Authors Note: Katherine Johnson is an undoubtedly an outstanding figure in the field of space science and astrophysics, with her accomplishments making much of NASA’s later work and the work of other space scientists possible. She is made even more remarkable by the fact that some of her achievements were accomplished under racial segregation, a continuous reminder for Black people in America that not only did racism surround them, but that it was enforced by government legislation. Jackson’s determination to fight back and demand equality so she could accomplish groundbreaking work in spite of all the discrimination she faced as a result of her race and gender is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And even with all this resting on her shoulders, she was nothing but humble: one of her favourite sayings is noted as being “You are no better than anyone else, and no one is better than you”, something which Johnson took to heart and echoed in her words and deeds throughout her life, as she paved the way for us to reach the stars. [4]

References:

References are categorised by the following types:

🗒️ = Written 

🎧 = Audio

💻 = Video

[1]🗒️ – Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Johnson

[2] 🗒️- Business Insider article on Katherine Johnson – http://uk.businessinsider.com/katherine-johnson-hidden-figures-nasa-human-computers-2016-8

[3]🗒️ – NASA.gov:  Katherine Johnson Biography – https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography

[4]🗒️ – Space.com article on Katherine Johnson – https://www.space.com/32805-katherine-johnson-langley-building-dedication.html

[5]🗒️ – The Heroine Collective article on Katherine Johnson – http://www.theheroinecollective.com/katherine-johnson-space-scientist/

[6]🗒️ – Scientific Women article on Katherine Johnson – https://scientificwomen.net/women/johnson-katherine-100

[7]🗒️ – Jalpopnik article: ‘The Black Women Who Served As NASA’s Human Computers’ – https://jalopnik.com/the-black-women-who-served-as-nasas-human-computers-1785302614

[8]🗒️ – Organisation of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) article on Katherine Johnson – https://www.obap.org/katherine-johnson

For more information on POC scientists please visit our resources page or read through the rest of our blog. We are constantly updating both.

Written by Pruthvi Mehta. For more information see the about page or follow her on Twitter @q_the_ordinary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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