In 1962, John Glenn sat in his capsule waiting for his rocket engines to light-up and lift him to space. But first, he insisted that Katherine Johnson double-check the electronic computer’s trajectory calculations. While that’s the dramatic version of events given in the recent movie, Hidden Figures, the reality isn’t very far off. Glenn wasn’t sitting on the launchpad at the time, but during the weeks prior to launch, he did insist that Johnson double-check the computer’s calculations.
So who is this woman who played an important but largely unknown part of such a well-known historical event? During her long life, she was a wife, a mother, an African-American, a teacher, and a human computer, a term rarely used these days. Her calculations played a part in much of early spaceflight and in 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. She also has a building named after her at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
Off Like A Rocket
She was born Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a lumberman, farmer, handyman and worked at a hotel. Due to her mother’s influence, she could read at the age of four. She enjoyed counting everything and had a gift for numbers. Their county didn’t offer public schooling for African-Americans past grade eight and so her father took the family the 130 miles (210 km) to Institute, West Virginia where she could attend high school. They spent the school years in Institute and the summers in White Sulphur Springs. She was ten years old at the time and graduated at fourteen.
The school was part of the West Virginia State College, a historically black college, and so she did her college there, taking every math course available. She had multiple mentors, including W. W. Schiefflin Claytor, only the third African-American to get a Ph.D. in math. At one point he said, “You’d make a good research mathematician and I’m going to see that you’re prepared.” This sort of encouragement was something she received a lot of during her upbringing. At the age of 18, she graduated with highest honors with degrees in Mathematics and French.
Mathematician To The Stars
She desired a career as a research mathematician but at first, could find only teaching jobs. Then in 1952, a relative mentioned that NACA (the predecessor to NASA) was looking for mathematicians. It turned out that NACA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, in Hampton, Virginia needed mathematicians for their Guidance and Navigation Department. She began working for them in 1953.
She first worked in a pool of women doing math calculations, mainly analyzing black box data from flight tests but also doing other mathematical jobs. She referred to the women as the “computers who wore skirts”. Two weeks into the work she moved over to the Flight Research Division’s Guidance and Control Division and never returned.
In 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first satellite, into space. As part of the race to catch up, in 1958, NACA became NASA. The group she was in became the Space Task Force, tasked with figuring out how to get a human into space and back. As she put it:
We wrote our own textbook, because there was no other text about space. We just started from what we knew. We had to go back to geometry and figure…
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