The Mathematician who sent us to the Moon

"There will always be science, engineering, and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics."

 

In 1963, American astronaut John Glenn refused to fly until NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson had personally verified the computer generated flight calculations by hand.   

"If she says they're good, then I'm ready to go" Glenn famously remarked.

This is the story of Katherine Johnson

Maths Prodigy 

Born in West Virginia, 1918, Johnson showed a high aptitude for maths from a young age. Her brilliance accelerated her several years ahead of her peers and she graduated high school at 14 and college at 18 with the highest honours.

"I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed... anything that could be counted, I did."

Following graduation she attempted to embark on a career as a maths researcher however Johnson found the opportunities for an African American woman in 1940s American limited.

NASA

In 1941 President Roosevelt banned racial discrimination in the defense industries and NASA's predecessor, NACA, began hiring black female mathematicians. Hearing of the opportunity Johnson, who by now had trained as a teacher, applied and was accepted into the Computing Department in 1953. 

After a short period at NACA she was temporarily assigned to the Flight Research Division which was staffed entirely by white male engineers. Breaking the barriers of race and gender Johnson quickly became indispensable member of the team and became the first woman in her department to have her name added to a paper.

"In the early days of NASA women were not allowed to put their names on the reports … 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". 

The Space Race

Following the Soviet success in launching the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 and then first astronaut, Yuri Gagarin in 1961 the fear engendered in the American public of Soviet technological superiority sparked the US government into investing huge resources to send astronauts into space and ultimately the moon. 

Johnson's ability to complete highly complex flight calculations by hand made her indispensable to the US space program and she moved to the Spacecraft Controls Branch. There she worked on orbital trajectories, sending the first American, Alan Shepherd into space, the Mercury missions and the flight calculations of the Apollo missions to land astronauts on the moon.
 
The perilous nature of space travel meant that small mistakes could lead to catastrophic outcomes but such was Johnson's reputation she was famously asked to manually verify computer generated calculations by astronaut John Glenn before his launch into space. Glenn instructed flight engineers to "get the girl" and "if she says they're good, then I'm ready to go".

 

Subjected to the prejudice of the time as a woman and secondly a black woman in Jim Crow era America, Johnson commented on her experiences 

 "I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better" 

Johnson died in 2020 at the age of 101.

 

 

All images Credit NASA except the second, credit Katherine Johnson

 

 

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