The Moon’s Supercomputer
“Get the girl to check the numbers. If she says the numbers are good, I’m ready to go.” — John Glenn
Born in 1918, Creola Katherine Coleman was a mathematical prodigy from an early age. Her home county did not offer public schooling for African-American students beyond eighth grade, so her parents arranged for her to attend a special high school on the campus of West Virginia State College.
Katherine started high school at age 10. She graduated at 14, at which point she started to study at West Virginia State College. She took every math class they offered. Recognizing her talent, some of her mentors at the college added new courses just for her. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937 at the age of 18. Of course, she had a degree in mathematics, but, just to make sure she wasn’t slacking, she also added a major in French.
After leaving a teaching position, she was selected as one of the first three African American students to enroll in graduate school at West Virginia University. She married James Goble and decided to start a family, leaving the university. The pair had three children before Goble died of a brain tumor in 1956. Three years later she married James Johnson. When she took his surname she became Katherine Johnson, a young woman who was unknowingly about to enter the lore of space travel.
In 1953, Johnson began working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which was the predecessor to NASA. For five years she worked as a mathematician, specifically a “computer.” Before the word’s connotation morphed into a hunk of metal that does a lot of digital things, computers were humans. The complex mathematics of aeronautical physics needed to be worked out by the minds of smart people. Johnson battled segregation and sexism at NACA. The story of segregation and sexism in the world, the USA, and the science industry is obviously beyond the scope of this article, but it’s important to note. Despite it all, Johnson barreled forward, working hard and brilliantly.
In 1958, NASA overtook NACA and officially ended segregation at the organization, but not necessarily the seclusion of women. Still, Johnson’s abilities propelled her to notoriety within NASA. As space flight overtook terrestrial flight, Johnson found herself working on historic and significant projects, including the 1961 flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and the Mercury missions.
By the early 1960s digital computers were starting to enter the employ of NASA, but they understandably worried about the accuracy of new technology, which leads us to the quote from John Glenn at the start of the article. Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth but refused to fly until Johnson had verified the mathematics the digital computers had derived.
NASA employed her talents on Apollo 11, the first flight to the moon, and Apollo 13, the ill-fated mission that required emergency planning to get astronauts home alive. Johnson helped create the backup procedures, including the one-star observation system profiled in the 1995 Tom Hanks film. She continued working at NASA into the Space Shuttle era, finally retiring in 1986.
Margot Lee Shetterly wrote the novel Hidden Figures about Johnson and other contemporaneous women critical to success in space. She summarized Johnson’s role in the Glenn mission: “So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.” The novel became a 2016 film, in which Johnson was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson.
In 2015 Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Two NASA facilities are now named in her honor. Unlike many women, Johnson lived to see her great accomplishments recognized, despite a lifetime of living in the shadows. She died nine days ago, on February 24, at the age of 101.
As we begin again to ponder space exploration by humans in a significant way, it’s important to remember how we got to where we can go. Katherine Johnson, in no small way, has propelled us to the stars and will help propel us there again.
Further Reading and Exploration
NASA Biography of Katherine Johnson
Makers: Women Who Make America – video on Katherine Johnson
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race – by Margot Lee Shetterly (e-book version)
Hidden Figures – film directed by Theodore Melfi
American Women in Technology: An Encyclopedia – by Linda Zierdt-Warshaw, Alan Winkler, and Leonard Bernstein