A Love of Math


As a teenager, my husband spent many hours diving into books about the NASA space program. Because of this he wanted to share one of his favorite astronaut autobiographies, Michael Collins' Carrying The Fire. We recently finished reading that book and are now starting in to reading Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures, which is new to both of us.

Shetterly's book talks about the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), their work at the Langley, Virginia facility that would one day become part of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), as well as the women of color who worked as computers for these agencies. At this time computers were women - both white and of color - who were hired to do the computing (mathematics) for the test programs and missions.


One of the main characters of Shetterly's book is a woman named Katherine Coleman {Goble Johnson}.


Katherine was born to Joshua McKinley and Joylette Roberta Coleman on 26 August 1918. She was the youngest of four children. Their family lived in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.


"Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918, her intense curiosity and brilliance with numbers vaulted her ahead several grades in school. By 13, she was attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. At 18, she enrolled in the college itself, where she made quick work of the school’s math curriculum and found a mentor in math professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a PhD in mathematics. She graduated with highest honors in 1937 and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia." (1)


A few years later in 1939, Katherine would leave the world of teaching to go back to school herself. She would be one of the first three people of color admitted to West Virginia University. Katherine enrolled in a graduate math program. However, at the end of the semester she left graduate school to become a wife and mother. Katherine married James Francis Goble.

Eventually in 1953, Katherine would take up a job as part of NACA's "all black West-Area Computing section". Because of this, Katherine and her husband would move their family - which would include three daughters - to Newport News, Virginia to better facilitate Katherine's work.

"Just two weeks into her tenure in the office, Dorothy Vaughan assigned her to a project in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division, and Katherine’s temporary position soon became permanent. She spent the next four years analyzing data from flight tests and worked on the investigation of a plane crash caused by wake turbulence."(2)


In December 1956, Katherine would tragically lose her husband to an inoperable brain tumor. After her husband's death, Katherine would continue working for NASA by computing trajectories for Alan Shephard's "Freedom 7" mission. She would go on to compute the trajectory calculations for John Glenn's "Friendship 7" mission as well.

"As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl” — Katherine Johnson — to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success, and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space." (3)


However, her work would not end there. She would go on to play important roles for the Apollo missions as well. She is especially well known for her work on Apollo's 11 and 13.


". . . Johnson's calculations helped sync the Apollo 11 lunar lander with the moon-orbiting command and service module to get the astronauts back to Earth. She also proved invaluable on the Apollo 13 mission, providing backup procedures that helped ensure the crew's safe return after their craft malfunctioned. She later helped to develop the space shuttle program and Earth resources satellite, and she co-authored 26 research reports before retiring in 1986." (4)


In 1959, Katherine would marry her second husband, James Arthur Johnson. They were married for 60 years until his death in March 2019.


In 2015, Katherine would be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.


On 24th February 2020, Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson passed away. Upon her death last year, NASA shared these words:

“NASA is deeply saddened by the loss of a leader from our pioneering days, and we send our deepest condolences to the family of Katherine Johnson. Ms. Johnson helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of color in the universal human quest to explore space. Her dedication and skill as a mathematician helped put humans on the moon and before that made it possible for our astronauts to take the first steps in space that we now follow on a journey to Mars. Her Presidential Medal of Freedom was a well-deserved recognition.


“At NASA we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her. We will continue building on her legacy and work tirelessly to increase opportunities for everyone who has something to contribute toward the ongoing work of raising the bar of human potential.” (5)


Her perseverance, grit, and self-confidence are worthy of emulation as we too face difficult and unfair situations. Mrs. Katherine Johnson's legacy lives on in a building named for her, the Katherine Johnson Computational Research Facility. Her story is also told in the movie and book of the same name called Hidden Figures.


"When asked to give her advice to NASA employees who will follow in her footsteps and work in the new building named after her, Johnson simply said: “Like what you do and then you will do your best.”"(6)


Footnotes:

(1) https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography

(2) https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography

(3) https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/celebrating-the-life-and-career-of-katherine-johnson

(4) https://www.space.com/katherine-johnson.html

(5) https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-administrator-statement-on-passing-of-katherine-johnson

(6) https://www.biography.com/scientist/katherine-g-johnson


Resources:

Articles:

NASA - Who Was Katherine Johnson (K-4grade), Katherine Johnson Biography, Katherine Johnson: The Girl who loved to count, and Launching the Space Race Katherine Johnson plus many more articles on not just Katherine but also Dorthey Vaughn and a lot about the astronauts as well.

Britannica - Katherine Johnson, Mathematician


Videos:

The African-American women behind NASA's rocket launches

NASA Trailblazer: Katherine Johnson | National Geographic

NASA Remembers Hidden Figure Katherine Johnson

Archival Footage: John Glenn's Mercury Flight

John Glenn Dead at 95 | Remembering the First American To Orbit Earth

Remembering John Glenn: See Footage of His Legendary First Orbit of the Earth | National Geographic

John Glenn: Friendship 7 re-entry | Synchronized film, audio

50 Years Ago: Alan Shepard, First American in Space

Hear Buzz Aldrin tell the story of the first Moon landing