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First Space Flight Thanks to Black Woman [Insight]

Katherine G. Johnson (far right) and colleagues in 1970's
There are many pioneers of science, but the first moon landing was made possible by a African American woman back in the 60's. Space flight has been the topic of science fiction films since the beginning of film with From Earth to the Moon. Now, find out how one woman helped bring that dream to reality despite obstacles.

She came from humble beginnings. Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson was born on August 26, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Her mother, Joylette, was a teacher and domestic worker and her father, Joshua, was a farmer and janitor. But this little girl was special: She loved to count. “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.” Johnson remembered. She longed to go to school but there was an obstacle because of her race at that time. For Blacks, school stopped at eighth grade, but her father wouldn't let that hold her back. He drove his family 120 miles to Institute, West Virginia, where education continued through high school for African Americans and then continued at West Virginia State College. Johnson persevered and excelled. She started high school at 10, graduated from high school at 14 and then from college at 18 with a Bachelors of Science in Mathematics and French, summa cum laude.

One of the college professors, Dr. William W. Schiefflin, Claytor recognized her skills and told her she would be a great "research mathematician." She didn't know what it was, but it sounded good to her. He did what many teachers don't: He guided her in the right direction. "Many professors tell you that you’d be good at this or that, but they don’t always help you with that career path. Professor Claytor made sure I was prepared to be a research mathematician.” she said.

She began teaching in the 1950's when she found out the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, (which proceeded NASA) was hiring Black women to be human "computers with skirts" in the Guidance and Navigation Department. Johnson was hired in 1953 and quickly broke boundaries for women and African Americans by attending high level meetings. “The women did what they were told to do,” she explained. “They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.” Johnson became a leading member of the team and an engineer on the "Space Task Force." The math they were doing was unique since no one had ever done anything like it before. "We wrote our own textbook, because there was no other text about space," she says. "We just started from what we knew. We had to go back to geometry and figure all of this stuff out. Inasmuch as I was in at the beginning, I was one of those lucky people."

She helped develop the trajectory for America’s first space trip with Alan Shepherd in 1961. "The early trajectory was a parabola, and it was easy to predict where it would be at any point," Johnson says. "Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start. I said, 'Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I'll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.' That was my forte." She went on to help with the first moon landing in a different way. By then the variables involving place and rotation of Earth and the moon became so complex that computers were needed, but they still needed Katherine Johnson. Johnson remembered, "You could do much more, much faster on computer. But when they went to computers, they called over and said, 'tell her to check and see if the computer trajectory they had calculated was correct.' So I checked it and it was correct." The human computer checked the computer.

Johnson co-authored 26 scientific papers and, while it was unusual in the 1960's for the "computers in skirts" to be named in a paper, was specifically mentioned in one: NASA TND-233, “The Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position”.

Katherine G. Johnson retired from NASA in 1986. Johnson received the Group Achievement Award presented to NASA’s Lunar Spacecraft and Operations team. Today, she lives with her husband in Hampton, Virginia tutoring youngsters in math, spending time with her grandchildren and solving puzzles.

Her age and gender never held her back. "I didn't have time for that," said Johnson. "My dad taught us 'you are as good as anybody in this town, but you're no better.' I don't have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I'm as good as anybody, but no better." Katherine Johnson blazed a trail for women and Black scientists for generations to come and helped blaze the trail from the Earth to the moon.

What do you think of Katherine G. Johnson?

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  1. Human computers with skirts? Really? Sad. How far we've come.

  2. What a trailblazer. Someone should get busy on making a biopic.

  3. Technology and our culture has made great leaps.
    "I'm as good as anybody, but no better." Love that quote! Pride and humility.

  4. What a cool lady! There were more women and unsung heroes involved with the space program. It's nice to hear about them now and then.

  5. Concerned Real Black WomanJanuary 3, 2017 at 9:02 PM

    Woman with White blood not really Black Biracial are mix race Not Black women.


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