It’s National Storytelling Week! To celebrate, we decided to share the story of Katherine Johnson. Katherine is best known for being a mathematician who has helped calculate and analyze flight paths of spacecraft, such as the first American missions to space and the lunar landings.
Her work not only contributed to sending the first American men into space but also laid the groundwork for the Space Shuttle program and helped NASA transition to using actual computers!
Katherine was born in West Virginia, America, in 1918. Her skill with numbers was apparent at an early age, which led to Katherine starting high school when she was just 10 years old! By the time she was 18, Katherine had graduated from West Virginia College with degrees in mathematics and French. In 1953 she began working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA) computing unit. The NACA would later become part of NASA.
Katherine And The First ‘Computers’
The NACA unit where Katherine worked was made up of a group of African American women, who manually performed complicated calculations for the engineers. Before the use of computers was common, the NACA and NASA relied heavily on units like Katherine’s, for the success of their early space programmes.
During this time, Katherine and the other African American women had to abide by state and federal segregation laws. This would require them to use separate toilets, as well as eat and drink in a different location to their white colleagues. Katherine and her unit were often referred to as the ‘Coloured Computers.’
NASA eventually became desegregated, but Katherine still faced barriers not only due to her race, but also her gender. Early on in NASA’s history, women were not allowed to write their own name on a report, even if the work was just theirs! Katherine became the first woman to have her name on a report (of which she wrote the majority) after her male colleague refused to add his.
Achievements and Legacy
Without Katherine’s work, NASA would have struggled to achieve much in its early stages. In 1962, NASA was preparing for the orbital mission of astronaut John Glenn, and Katherine was asked to do the work that she would become most famous for. She was responsible for ensuring the flight path and calculations of John Glenn’s flight path were exact. Thanks to her, the mission was a success. From there on, Glenn refused to fly unless the computer’s calculations had been personally verified by Katherine!
She continued working into the late sixties, helping with the mapping of the moon for the Lunar mission in 1969. She continued working with NASA until her retirement in 1986, after thirty-three years of service. As a result of her service, Katherine earned five NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement awards for her work.
Her most lasting achievement is the social impact that her career had on society in America and the world. She accomplished so much at NASA, despite the racial bias and gender objectives she faced, making her an inspiration to women and people of colour everywhere.
In 2016 she was gifted with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, the highest civilian award in the United States. The recent Hollywood blockbuster, Hidden Figures, is based and centred around Katherine and her unit of ‘computers’ and is definitely worth a watch to learn more about her life. Katherine passed away peacefully on the 24th February 2020, aged 101 – very much in her prime!
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