By Jaime Seltzer
Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia to extraordinarily bright parents. Her mother, Joylette, had been a schoolteacher before marrying her father, Joshua, a man with a sixth-grade education who could nonetheless solve Katherine’s math word problems in an instant if she read them aloud, and calculate the feet of board lumber a tree would produce on sight. The entire family shared a love of learning and a blazing curiosity that allowed Katherine to grow up confident in questioning the world around her.
White Sulphur Springs had no high school that would admit black students in the mid-1900s. Joshua was determined to see his four children attend college, so he moved the family over 120 miles away to Institute, West Virginia, which boasted both a black high school and a black college: West Virginia State University. Every year for eight years, he worked at a hotel in town during the school year, and then he and his entire family would pick up and move back to the country in the summer to log, farm, and work like mad to keep enough money flowing in. Somehow, he managed to send all of his four children to high school and college on a hundred-dollar-a-month salary plus anything he made through selling lumber, and presumably through the use of both a shoestring and a prayer.
Katherine had already skipped a few grades, and so entered college at the age of fifteen. W.W. Schieffelin Claytor, one of the first African Americans to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics in the United States, was one of her professors. She so impressed him with her incredible brain that he stopped her on the quad and said “listen, if you’re not in my classes I will come and find you.” He taught advanced courses she attended with only a few other students, and a notable course in aeronautics that Claytor wrote specifically for her.
Katherine asked Claytor, “if I got into math, will anyone hire me?” to which Claytor replied, “you’ll have to see.” She said, “what would someone who researches math really do, anyway?” and Claytor said, “well, I guess that’s up to you to find out.”
The lack of specific response must have excited Katherine’s imagination, because she transferred over to a mathematics degree in her sophomore year, despite literally having no idea what a ‘research mathematician’ truly was. All she knew was that numbers were her passion, and she had to pursue them.
At first, Katherine taught. As she had known, there were few opportunities for women with her skin color, but she could be an educator, as her mother was before her. When she got married, she ceased teaching, only to resume when her husband became too sick to work. Then, an incredible confluence of events changed her life.
An aeronautics company was looking specifically for female mathematicians to do their fiddly numbers work that they deemed men too impatient to handle. (Seriously, guys, you can’t make this stuff up. This is actually also the reason that Marie Tharp was able to get into mapmaking – women were considered more detail-oriented than men. Unfortunately, this often translated to “give them all the grunt work.”)
Dizzied by the possibility, she immediately applied, only to find out that the pool was already full. Undeterred, Katherine tried again the following year and was hired to work on the trajectory of airplanes in 1953. Little did she know that she had been hired by the organization that would someday become NASA.
In some ways, NASA – then NACA – was insulated from the race issues of the times. “I didn’t feel the segregation,” Johnson said during an interview for public television in her 90s. “Everybody had a job to do,” she added, as though the people at NASA were just plain too busy for such nonsense, which could very well have been the case. Kennedy had just proclaimed that the United States would send people to the moon, and NACA was buzzing with activity and promise, like a beehive full of geniuses, waiting to rocket their ideas into space.
Katherine, ever curious, wanted to be in on the meetings about space travel. Her supervisor informed her that ‘the girls’ didn’t usually go to such meetings. Her response was the blandly delivered, “Well, is there a law?” Of course, there was no law to prevent women from hearing about space exploration, so her bosses were forced to concede that they were being very silly.
She insinuated herself into meetings, and then took on tougher and tougher jobs, and got the reputation for perfect, beautiful mathematics that was correct 99 times of 100. She published or co-authored over twenty-five papers. She plotted trajectories that allowed the rocket scientists to determine when they should lift off, at what angle, and when they should come back down. She calculated the trajectory of Alan Shepherd, the first American in space. She calculated the trajectory for John Glenn’s trip around the earth. She calculated the trajectory for the Apollo 13 mission in 1970, and her lightning-quick adjustments for re-entry helped save the astronaut’s lives when things went terribly wrong.
The pressure didn’t bother her one jot.
“It was simple,” she said later. “You had to consider the rotation of the earth – and, equally important… you had to know the location of the moon and where it was when you took off and where it was when you got there…” Then she broke off, as if realizing that what seemed so simple to her could sound ridiculously complicated to people who were not her. “Well, it was intricate,” she compromised, “but it was possible.”
Katherine Johnson has been awarded various trophies and honors, including one of only 300 flags flown in space, and has been recognized as a hero in her own time. In her 90s, she still gives talks to schoolchildren and demonstrates her razor-sharp head for numbers by recalling an incredible level of detail about her remarkable life. One of the schoolchildren who interviewed her famously asked her if she were “still living”… undoubtedly one of those book-report-type questions that it didn’t occur to the child was foolish to ask until the deed was done. But Johnson took it in stride, saying that children expect that anybody in a black-and-white photo in their textbook must be dead!
She is not. You should write her a nice letter or poem that describes how incredible she is. Word is, she likes them even better than the flag.
Deiss, H. S. (2013, November 6). Katherine Johnson: A Lifetime of STEM. In NASA Langley Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/a-lifetime-of-stem.html#.VdFKWZdZOap
Hodges, J. (2008, August 26). She was a computer when computers wore skirts. In NASA Langley Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/news/researchernews/rn_kjohnson.html
Katherine Johnson. (2012, February 6). In The History Makers. Retrieved from http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/katherine-g-johnson-42
Millie, M. (2013, August 26). Katherine Johnson: A black woman with brains and skill!. In Black Women Who Know Their Worth. Retrieved from https://blackwomenwhoknowtheirworth.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/katherine-johnson-a-black-woman-with-brains-and-skill/
[WHROTV]. (2011, February 25). What Matters – Katherine Johnson: NASA Pioneer and “computer”. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8gJqKyIGhE