Katherine Johnson, the real life human computer portrayed in the film Hidden Figures has passed on at 101. Find out more about her remarkable NASA career.
I watched the Academy Awards a couple of weeks ago, and I was thrilled that the winner for best picture was groundbreaking. Parasite was the first international feature film to win the Best Picture Oscar.
I haven’t always found the Oscars so open-minded. In, 1999, I was disappointed when when Life is Beautiful won the Grand Prix at Cannes but then got passed over for Shakespeare in Love.
The same feeling came back to me in 2017 when the landmark film Hidden Figures got shut out of the Oscars. The movie had three nominations, including for Best Picture, but went home with no awards.
BLACK WOMEN WORKED AS NASA HUMAN COMPUTERS
I’m bringing up Hidden Figures because human computer Katherine Johnson, the real-life woman played by Taraji P. Henson in that film, has just passed on at 101. She was one of a few hundred women who worked at the NASA Langley Research Center as human computers.
Katherine Johnson stands out not just for being a woman in the STEM fields way back then but also because she was African-American. She was the last surviving member of about thirty black women with jobs as human computers at the space agency.
One story says it all about Katherine Johnson. John Glenn was the first astronaut to orbit the Earth in his Mercury space capsule, Friendship 7, back in 1962. As he was going over his final trajectory, he asked Katherine Johnson to double-check the arithmetic.
“IF SHE SAYS THE NUMBERS ARE GOOD, I’M READY TO GO.”
“If she says the numbers are good, I’m ready to go,” he explained. People would calmly bet their lives on her way with numbers, even though one human error could get them killed.
This all happened in the days of Jim Crow laws about segregation. As her biographer Margot Lee Shetterly put it, it was a time “when the odds were more likely that she would die before age 35 than even finish high school.”
In fact, being born in the rural south in 1918, she was lucky to make it past Grade 6. That’s as far as the segregated system in her home town of White Springs West Virginia went for black kids.
SHE WAS LUCKY TO MAKE IT PAST GRADE SIX
Fortunately for all of us, her parents saw her potential with numbers from an early age. They would watch her keep trying to count all the stars in the sky.
Katherine Johnson told AP, “I couldn’t wait to get to high school to take algebra and geometry.” You don’t hear kids say that every day.
They arranged for her to go to school 125 miles away in Institute, West Virginia, where her teachers moved her ahead by a few grades. She not only finished high school but went on to graduate Summa Cum Laude from West Virginia State College.
GRADUATED SUMMA CUM LAUDE FROM WEST VIRGINIA STATE
She was one of the first three black students handpicked in 1939 to do graduate work at West Virginia University. By that point, she was married and she left her studies when she was expecting her first child.
She went back to teaching when her kids were old enough. In 1952, she found out that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was hiring African-American women as human computers.
She applied and got a job in 1953. Just two weeks into it, the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division brought her onto their team temporarily to help make aerodynamic calculations for aircraft.
REMEMBERED GEOMETRY THE MALE STAFF HAD FORGOTTEN
She could still remember most of her geometry whereas most of the male staff with post-graduate degrees had forgotten theirs. That made her the star of her team and she ended up spending her whole career in Flight Research.
Her biographer quotes her as saying, “I loved every single day of it. There wasn’t one day when I didn’t wake up excited to go to work.” How many of us can say that? I know I can’t.
When the United States got into the space race with the Soviet Union, the human calculators in the Flight Research Division, which came along with the space program into NASA, got the job of determining trajectories. That meant figuring out the launch window and where the capsule would end up.
DID ALL THE CALCULATIONS BY HAND using A PENCIL
They didn’t have electronic computers. The human computers did all of the calculations by hand using a pencil, graph paper, slide rules and noisy mechanical adding machines. The work was so secret that sometimes they would only realize what they’d really been doing from reading press reports later on.
Katherine Johnson wrote or cowrote 26 research papers during her long career. NASA named her the very first female author or co-author from Flight Research and she was among the first woman authors in the entire agency.
She wasn’t just the human computer behind John Glenn’s mission. Alan Shepard’s early Freedom 7 spaceflight also followed her hand calculated trajectory. Later on, she hand calculated the trajectories to get the Apollo 11 mission to the moon and back.
HAND CALCULATED THE TRAJECTORIES FOR APOLLO 11
She always thought the moon landing was her best accomplishment. Later in her career, Katherine Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS), now called Landsat.
She stayed with NASA for 33 years before retiring in 1986. “NASA was a very professional organization. They didn’t have time to be concerned about what colour I was,” she told the Fayetteville Observer.
She went on to say, “I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.” Let that be a lesson for us all.
“I’M AS GOOD AS ANYBODY, BUT NO BETTER”
Nobody heard much about Katherine Johnson or her peers during her career or for most of her retirement years. She wasn’t hiding, though.
In later life, Katherine Johnson advocated for better math education in public schools. She made a lot of speeches and visited schools to encourage kids to take an interest in the STEM fields.
Her obscurity started changing in her old age. In 2015, President Obama awarded Katherine Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That’s the highest civilian honour in the United States.
AWARDED THE PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM
In his remarks, the president said, “Katherine Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.” Interest in the history behind NASA’s team of human computers started building.
In 2017, Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The American Dream And The Untold Story Of The Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win The Space came out. If became a #1 New York Times bestseller.
Almost overnight, director Theodore Melfi made a Hollywood movie out of it. Taraji P. Henson played Katherine Johnson and Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe also starred in it as two of her co-workers in real life.
She was worried that she’d be portrayed as militant and aggressive, which she wanted everyone to know she never had to be with NASA. In the end, she said she liked the movie very much.
COMPUTER SCIENCE BUILDING AT LANGLEY NAMED FOR HER
Also in 2017, NASA decided to name its new computer science building at Langley the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. Things have turned around for her and her unsung cohorts after all those years in the background.
Today’s a sad day but we can also celebrate Katherine Johnson’s long and fruitful life. She rose above the limits that her backward culture imposed on her generation and instead devoted herself to lifelong learning. Always humble, whenever anyone praised her, she would simply respond, “I was just doing my job.”
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine released a statement this morning in Katherine Johnson’s memory. He said, “Our NASA family is sad to learn the news that Katherine Johnson passed away this morning at 101 years old. She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten.”
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
New York Times Obituary
Hidden Figures: The American Dream And The Untold Story Of The Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win The Space Race
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