It’s Women’s History Month and Victoria Gwen Designs is doing a series about some inspirational women-Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathemitician and physicist is our first series post
First in Our Women in History Series
Katherine Johnson is a name that no self-respecting blog that is doing a women in history series can forget to include. Her name became much more well-known with the book and subsequent movie, Hidden Figures, by author Margot Shetterly. If you haven’t yet seen this movie or read the book, I encourage you to do so. It tells the story of Ms. Johnson, along with Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson and their work at NASA during the great space race era. The issues these ladies had to deal with in just doing their jobs makes it hard to watch a few times … yet they persevere because they are such strong, bright women and they KNOW they have so much to contribute if only NASA will let them!
Katherine showed an interest and proclivity to numbers at a very early age and was enrolled into the high school at the West Virginia University campus by age 13. She would go on to college there and then be one of only three black students accepted into the graduate schools when those were opened.
Besides being a brilliant mathematician, Ms. Johnson was a wife and mother to three little girls. Her first husband passed away from a brain tumor making her a widow and now single mom. She was courted by Sergeant Robert Johnson having met him in church one day and they later married.
In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Katherine Johnson was called upon to do the work that she would become most known for. The complexity of the orbital flight had required the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, DC, Cape Canaveral, and Bermuda. The computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, from blast off to splashdown, but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts. As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—Katherine Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space (Shetterly, 2018).Margot Shetterly
Ms. Johnson would also contribute to the space shuttle and earth resources satellite during her career, as well as publishing (or co-authoring) over two dozen research reports.
Ms. Johnson was reportedly asked by Shetterly (2018) about what she herself felt to be her “greatest contribution to space exploration”, to which she replied that the calculations that “helped to sync the Apollo Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting command and Service Module.”
Over the years in her career, Ms. Johnson would receive several awards from NASA as well as a couple of honorary degrees from several universities. In 2015, Katherine received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony by President Barack Obama-the highest honor that a civilian can receive-she was 97 years old. In 2017, The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Center in Virginia was dedicated in a ribbon cutting ceromony that was attended by Johnson, her family and friends.
To further drive home just how much the world has come to appreciate her accomplishments, in 2017, Katherine accompanied the stars of the Hidden Figures movie on to the stage to present the Best Documentary award at the 89th Oscars, to which she received a standing ovation. Finally, knowledge of the work of Ms. Johnson, along with Ms. Vaughan and Ms. Jackson has become well-known and credit is given where credit is due …
Share this story with the girls in your life of all ages. Use it to inspire, encourage, and show them that sometimes hardship is worth it in order to do what you love and are passionate about!
Blessings and happy learning!