“If she says the numbers are good, I am ready to go “ — John Glenn
Can you imagine the SpaceX and NASA’s LaunchAmerica Program last week without any computers? During the 1960s, when computers were not as advanced, humans were checking if the numbers were good. John Glenn, a NASA astronaut who orbited the Earth in 1962 said,“If she says the numbers are good, I am ready to go.” SHE is none other than Katherine Johnson, who was a mathematician at NASA. Katherine’s story is incredibly inspiring to every student, especially girls who love math. She has changed the way we see women in STEM. There is always a journey to all this hope.
The best and brightest stars come from the most violent tornadoes.
Katherine Johnson was born on August 26, 1918, as Creola Katherine Coleman. She was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Her father was Joshua Coleman, a blacksmith and farmer. Her mother was a schoolteacher who helped Katherine learn about the values of education. Katherine’s early life was filled with adventure and exceptional events. There was always a spark of creative and logical ideas running through her mind nonstop without much inspiration, creating her love for mathematics. Katherine inherited her crazy math skills from her father, a poor and sparsely educated boy who was a pure and observant math genius. Even though he was only strictly educated until the 6th grade, Joshua had a creative mind that influenced Katherine’s early life. As a black female, she wasn’t educated at the highest standards because of her race. She was raised during a time when black Americans were treated unfairly compared to white Americans. Despite the racism going on around her era, she managed to keep a bright curiosity and an unbelievable talent with numbers. As she got older, she read math textbooks years above her school grade that even college students wouldn’t bother to open up.
Katherine’s high school and college years were unlike any other upcoming high school student’s time in the transition to adulthood. She entered high school extremely early at the age of 10, as she had skipped multiple grades prior due to her intelligence. There were no Negro secondary schools in White Sulphur Springs, so the Colemans’ sent their children to attend the laboratory school on the campus of West Virginia State College 100 miles away. As one of the most advanced students in her class, Katherine excelled in every math course the school offered. It even got to the point where special advanced classes were created just for her and her friend, knowledge. She said in an interview that she counted everything from steps to books on a shelf. This made her feel more calm and present which is unusual since keeping a memory of numbers is almost like a stressful headache.
Katherine graduated from high school at the age of 14 and got enrolled into West Virginia State College, which was located next to her old high school. As a student in this evolving diverse campus, she took every math course offered by the college outrunning her classmates. Surprisingly, during one of her classes, her college professor correctly theorized her later inspiring career and prepared for her NASA career through her incredible mind. This is especially heartwarming since most people during that time didn’t expect blacks to achieve that high in life. If every teacher believed and characterized each other’s path to careers like that, the world would be a better place. Katherine worked with many famous scientists and mathematicians throughout her college years. Throughout her college years, she worked mainly with William Schieffelin Claytor, a loyal young man who was the 3rd African American to graduate with a PhD in mathematics. She graduate summa cum laude with a degree in Mathematics and French at the age of 18. There is no doubt that these four years influenced her entire life and career at NASA.
After college, her friends and family had big futuristic predictions about her going to a largely budgeted job with the high honors she got from her youth. Even with those grades, she started her career teaching at a black public school in Marion, Virginia. She loved teaching and wanted her students to get the best access to learning as possible even if she worked at a low income school. There was still a long journey to go to reach her true colors and stars with all of the tornadoes in between. Back in the 1930s, many groups were discriminated against including blacks more harshly than before, which made it difficult to find a job as a mathematician. There was the criticism many whites thought would happen, if they tried to hire blacks with equal advantages instead of lower ones.
During her teaching career, she got married to her first husband, James Goble in 1938. Their budgets were hard to stretch since money was low. Soon after in 1939, John Davis, West Virginia State’s President, chose Johnson and two other men to be the 1st black students offered spots at West Virginia State University after the State school decided to integrate it’s graduate schools. This was a big step that was achieved after a long hiatus, influencing the end of segregation. Katherine, who wanted to further enhance her education accepted the offer to pursue the math program at the graduate level. To do so, she had to leave her teaching job. The two other men chosen for the spots at the university would be entering the law school, while Katherine entered mathematics. Going to an all-white university as a black woman was very risky and dangerous at the time. She stayed calm about this whole situation even though her mom came to live with her because she was so anxious. School wasn’t as hard for Katherine as she had thought. Only one classmate gave her trouble by ignoring her simply. Even though she loved this math program, she had to leave the program only after one session to build a family with her husband James. She and her husband had 3 daughters, Constance, Joylette, and Katherine, and went back to teaching for money at a black high school.
The best thing about opportunities is that they often appear in the most unusual circumstances, changing your life and legacy forever. Seizing that moment of several paths is important because some opportunities don’t come twice.
When Katherine attended a wedding in August 1952, she came to know that NASA was hiring black women to work as mathematicians at the Langley Research Center in Virginia. She was eager to listen since she and her husband were public school teachers with modest paychecks that include their stressful budget. This new opportunity made her realize her true passion for math and tech and how she will make her dreams come true. Just like that, Katherine accepted a job offer from the aeronautics agency in June 1953. After she got the job, the whole family moved to Newsome Park, Virginia where James got a well paid job as a painter in the local shipyard. 2 weeks into her new job, Dorothy Vaughan, a human computer and mathematician, assigned her to a project in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division. This temporary position soon became permanent as she began to spend the next 4 years analyzing data from flights, working on the investigation of a plane crash caused by wake turbulence. Even with this highly paid job that gave her dreams back, her luck and amusement wouldn’t last long.
Tragically, her husband died of an incurable brain tumor in December of 1956 at the age of 43. James fell ill before she accepted her role at NASA, and his death caused immediate stress and heartbreak. Still heartbroken from his loss, Katherine decided to stand up for her rights for ending segregation. Back then, the Flight Research Division was staffed by white male engineers. Due to a segregation law introduced by Woodrow Wilson in 1913, Johnson and the other African American Women were required to work, eat, use restrooms that were separate from those of their white peers. Their office was also labeled as “Colored Computers”. Even with this hard way of life, Johnson said in an interview that she didn’t feel the segregation at NASA since everyone had a job and a mission to accomplish along with the importance of doing work and research. She knew it was there but she didn’t feel it. After Katherine’s sneaky tactics for using the white women’s bathroom for years unnoticed came into the spotlight, the NASA decided to disband the colored computing pool in 1958.
In 1959, Katherine married James A. Johnson, a United States Army Officer and veteran of the Korean War. With all the stress following new air projects and segregation laws, another challenging issue was put into play for NASA, a race-to-space against the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union launched their new soviet satellite Sputnik 1, the US was scrambling to beat Russia in making an advanced industrialized machine enter space collecting data. This fierce competition started the Space Race, an era of the Cold War that lasted for almost 20 years until 1975. During this time, Katherine got the opportunity of fame that would create the event she is most famous for. For the orbital mission of John Glenn in 1962, Johnson was called to run the same numbers they calculated through. the same equations that have been programmed into the computer, by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. Katherine calculated the flight path for America’s first mission in space. This was a very tough job to accomplish as she was verifying the most complex algorithms for space with a pencil, paper, and a calculator. One wrong digit or number, her dignity and trustworthiness would be lost along with her job.
Even though Glenn respected and treated Katherine equally as the white scientists, Katherine did it, and handed her completed work to NASA directors, proud and needy for one last check. Glenn deeply trusted her calculations for his mission and had refused to fly unless Johnson verified her calculations. On February 20, 1962, Glenn went into space and orbited the Earth. Johnson sat in the watch center tensed and afraid of any mishappenings or issues in the spacecraft. Seeing the spacecraft spin and turn along the edges of the Earth was stressful enough anyway. That final landing and arrival on Glenn to Earth filled Johnson with relief and pride as being an African American woman in the still-segregated South admired by a white man as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a major success.
Other than her Glenn orbital flight project, she did flight analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission called Freedom 7. She also helped to calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. Katherine was the first woman, in fact, to receive credit as an author of a research report in the Flight Research Division way back when women were not allowed to put their names on reports at NASA. Katherine Johnson continued to work at the Langley Research Center till 1986, when she retired from NASA. She co authored and authored 26 long research papers, defeating the beliefs of her previous staffers. Along with her name being in many buildings and research centers, President Barack Obama selected her to receive the Presidential Medal Of Freedom in 2015. During her stage of retirement, she reflected on her later legacy stating that she loved going to work everyday from the beginning, no matter what torment or disbelief she encountered that day. She died on February 24, 2020 at the age of 101.
Katherine Goble Johnson was an unbelievably talented woman who changed the way people view women in a positive direction. She has inspired several young girls and women to strive in a STEM career. Katherine is considered as an American hero who pioneered her legacy to be a never forgotten human being. Katherine defined her own life’s expectations to help and influence others for an eternity. The sky was no limit for Katherine Johnson, a genius who changed the world through pencils, papers, and true talent.