Katherine Johnson took us to the moon (and back)

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve wasn’t all that into space growing up. That said, I remember going to the Kennedy Space Center and watching movies and TV shows about our journeys into space. And I vividly recall the participants being depicted as white men. All of them. But that’s not accurate; there was an entire corps of women who did complex math to make flight (including space flight) possible and safe. And among those women, there was a group of Black women who did this work too. Katherine Johnson was chief among them.

If you’ve read the book or seen the movie Hidden Figures, you no doubt know who Katherine Johnson is, but I want to share some interesting pieces of her story.

First off, Johnson was born in 1918. Growing up, she showed an incredible gift for mathematics, but she couldn’t attend public school past eighth grade in her West Virginian county because she was Black and, well, racism. So her parents arranged for her to attend high school on the campus of West Virginia State College (now University). She enrolled at 10!

At 14(!) she graduated high school and enrolled at West Virginia State. She took every math class she could, and when she ran out of those, one of her professors, W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, created new classes for her to take. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937—at the age of 18—with degrees in math and French.

Two years later, Katherine Johnson began graduate studies at West Virginia University, becoming the first woman of color to attend the graduate program at the university. In fact, she was one of only three African-American students (and the only woman) selected to integrate the graduate school after Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada. She left a year later, after becoming pregnant, to focus on her family.

Think about how few people of color (let alone women of color) you see in STEM careers today. Now turn the clock back 80 years and you start to get a sense of how hard it was for Katherine Johnson to find any work in mathematics that weren’t teaching positions. However, as luck would have it, she learned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the precursor to NASA) was hiring mathematicians. She applied and was hired into the Guidance and Navigation Department of NACA, which had a relatively progressive (by today’s standards) hiring policy.

NACA had a growing pool of women—including Black women—who were “computers” that would read data from aircraft black boxes and execute precise mathematical calculations. Despite the progressive hiring policy, NACA segregated its employees and the Black women were restricted to their own office and had to eat in their own dining room and use their own toilets. Still, Johnson’s mind and assertiveness enabled her to become part of the previously all-male flight research teams and higher level meetings where there wasn’t a woman in sight. She was matter-of-fact in her assertiveness too, simply telling people she had done the work and she belonged there.

When NACA became NASA, the segregated work environment went away, but discrimination was still pervasive, especially when it came to gender. 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.

At NASA, Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectory for Alan Shephard’s 1961 space flight. When NASA used computers to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth—the first time they’d used electronic ones rather than human ones—they asked Johnson to verify the result. Glenn apparently refused to go up without her help. In the book Hidden Figures, author Margot Lee Shetterly, also a Black woman, nails the irony:

So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this Black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.

In addition to verifying their calculations, Johnson worked with computers too. In fact, in many ways she helped build confidence in the burgeoning technology. She calculated Apollo 11’s trajectory to the Moon and it was her work on backup procedures that helped make it possible for Apollo 13 to return safely to Earth.

I can’t even begin to comprehend the brilliance of Katherine Johnson’s mind. And I am in awe of her, but not just for that… for her perseverance. We are only just starting to recognize, as a society, how much we stand to gain when we work in a diverse and inclusive environment. Imagine how much we might have missed out on had she not been assertive, had she not believed in herself. Her story is yet another in a long line of stories that prove how important it is to give people the opportunity to do their best work. And how important it is to believe in them and encourage them to believe in themselves.