Going Where No Woman Has Gone Before: Hidden Figures and Women in STEM

, via Wikimedia Commons”]You’ve probably heard of John Glenn, Alan Shepard, and Neil Armstrong, but have you heard of Katherine Johnson?  She was an African American mathematician known as “the human computer” who worked from NASA in 1953. She most notably known for verifying calculations done by new computing technology at the time of John Glenn’s first orbit around the Earth on NASA’s Friendship 7 flight. In fact, Glenn refused to do the mission unless Katherine did his calculations.

, via Wikimedia Commons”]There is a movie currently in theaters called “Hidden Figures” that reveals the hidden history of events we thought we knew so well.  The plot follows the story of Katherine Johnson and her fellow colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. They were all African American women, who helped make the first missions into space a reality. Katherine, Dorothy and Mary all overcame a lack of educational resources, segregation, and gender bias in order to help launch the United States’ first man into Earth’s orbit.   

When Katherine was growing up there was no schooling for African American children past 8th grade.  Given her gifts and aptitude, her parents got her special schooling and she was able to graduate high school at 14. At age 18 she went to West Virginia State College – a historically African American College.  She graduated summa cum laude in 1937.  A couple years later in 1939 she attended West Virginia University not only as one of the first African American students but also the very first woman.  If not for a court ordering the university’s desegregation, she would not have had the opportunity to earn her graduate degree and history might look very different. 

Despite her credentials, her job opportunities were mostly limited to teaching.  She taught school until 1952 when, at a family gathering, a relative mentioned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring mathematicians.  In 1953, NACA offered Johnson a job in the Guidance and Navigation Department at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. She accepted and became part of the early NASA team. NACA would later become NASA in 1958. 

According to an oral history archived by the National Visionary Leadership Project:

“At first she [Johnson] worked in a pool of women performing math calculations. Katherine has referred to the women in the pool as virtual ‘computers who wore skirts.’ Their main job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other precise mathematical tasks. Then one day, Katherine (and a colleague) were temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team. Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male bosses and colleagues to the extent that, “they forgot to return me to the pool.” While the racial and gender barriers were always there, Katherine says she ignored them. Katherine was assertive, asking to be included in editorial meetings (where no women had gone before.) She simply told people she had done the work and that she belonged.”

From 1953 through 1958, Johnson worked analyzing topics such as gust alleviation for aircraft. In keeping with state racial segregation laws, and federal workplace segregation rules that were in place at the time, Johnson and the other African-American women in the computing pool were required to work, eat, and use restrooms that were completely separate from those of their white peers. Their office was labeled as “Colored Computers.” In 1958 NASA adopted digital computers and desegregated! 

Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist and even calculated the trajectory for the May 5, 1961 space flight of Alan Shepard. She also calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission. She plotted backup navigational charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures.

Johnson later worked directly with digital computers. Thanks to her ability and reputation for accuracy, she was able to establish confidence in the new technology. She calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. In 1970, Johnson worked on Apollo 13′s mission to the Moon. Once the mission was aborted, her work on backup procedures and charts helped safely return the crew to Earth. Later in her career, she worked on the Space Shuttle program. 

She’s long been recognized as a pioneer for African American women in STEM and in 2015, she was honored by President Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

, via Wikimedia Commons. “]Katherine Johnson awarded with Presidential Medal of Freedom, on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015 by President  Barack ObamaThe month of February is Black History Month! So here at High Touch High Tech we’d like to highlight one of our awesome programs that credits some amazing African American scientists, including Katherine Johnson, called The Real McCoy! Book The Real McCoy at your elementary school and your students will get the chance to experiment with friction like the famous scientist, Elijah McCoy. Then they will get to learn about pollution, scientist Rufus Stokes’ and his appreciation for clean air and a healthy environment. Lastly, the students will get to make an astrolabe (an instrument used for measuring the position of the stars, moons, and planets) just like Katherine Johnson used!

Follow this link to make your reservation today: https://sciencemadefun.net/science-program-reservations.cfm

 

Sources: 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Johnson

commons.wikimedia.org

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