Katherine Johnson – A Computer In A Skirt

Katherine Johnson being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. Retrieved from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Photo by Evan Vucci/Associated Press

In 1962, NASA used computers to calculate the orbit around Earth for astronaut John Glenn. However, he made a specific request: to have a Black, female mathematician double-check the math prior to his takeoff on the Friendship 7 spacecraft. Who was this woman, working in a white, male-dominant field in the 1960s?

She was the legendary Katherine Johnson, and her assistance allowed Friendship 7 to be the first successful spacecraft to orbit the Earth. In honour of Black History Month, let’s learn about one of NASA’s most influential figures. 

Johnson’s talent in mathematics shone when she was very young with the support of Miss Turner, her geometry teacher. She excelled and was able to move into advanced classes. By age 10, she was a freshman in high school, and by age 18, she had graduated from West Virginia State College with a Bachelor of Science in mathematics and French. Her career at NASA started in 1953. There, one of her greatest achievements besides the Friendship 7 mission was the Apollo 11, where her calculations were critical to the success of the landing of the first men on the moon.

A still from the film “Hidden Figures”. In it, Taraji P. Henderson (middle) portrays Katherine Johnson

Johnson’s success was unheard of until the release of Hidden Figures. The film was based on a non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three female African American mathematicians working at NASA. Not only does the film applaud their contribution to America’s space exploration, but also shines a light on the racism and sexism they had to endure. 

These women worked in the West Area Computing unit, a group of African American women who were segregated from the rest of the faculty. Even though they manually analyzed and computed vital data, their work was often considered insignificant. Their office was labelled as “Colored Computers” and their washroom was labelled as “Colored Ladies Room”. Johnson commented on her working situation at the time, saying that “The women did what they were told to do. 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.” Her persistence paid off as she was pulled from the unit to work on other programs.

Katherine Johnson received many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, awarded by President Barack Obama. She was a “human computer”, a hero of space exploration, and a pioneer for women and Black people in STEM fields.  She passed away in February of 2020, but her legacy continues to live on. 

What I admire most about her was how she remained confident and determined while continually being overlooked and undermined. She embraced her work and colleagues with enthusiasm and charisma, and her passion and intelligence spoke for themselves until they could not be denied.

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