Rocket Science: Remembering Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was a “rocket scientist”, one of the very few women mathematicians hired by NASA during the early rocket missions of the 1960s. Johnson distinguished in her role as a computational scientist even after the first transistor computers were rolled out by NASA to guide rocket missions. Yet, she was not a household name until much later – in 2016, when the bestselling book and Hollywood film, Hidden Figures highlighted her role as a NASA mathematician. The book and the film showcased Johnson’s startling ability to perform high-stakes calculations to send astronauts to space, all the while enduring racism (she was black) and sexism from her colleagues.

The 1960s were a time when America was determined to send an astronaut on a trip around the Earth before the Russians beat them to it. As the space agency became increasingly desperate, three big brains were drafted in to help: Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. It was an all Black women team. The trio worked together in a segregated unit at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia and were considered by John Glenn Jr, the first man to orbit around the Earth, as  indispensable to his Friendship 7 mission to orbit around the Earth.

The film introduces Johnson (played charmingly by Lidya Jewett) as a gifted child. She is seen kicking a pine cone down the road on her way to grade school in West Virginia in the 1920s, blissfully unaware of the opportunities and frustrations that lie ahead. But this was no ordinary sixth grader. The girl was noting prime numbers as she counts her pine-cone kicks out loud. And when her teacher hands her a piece of chalk, she marches to the blackboard and within minutes, solves a quadratic equation.

Years later at NASA, Johnson is confronted with not only with enormity of scientific challenges her role entails but also obstacles of institutionalized racism: separate drinking fountains and toilets, even a separate coffee pot. When she enters her new office for the first time, a white engineer hands her a trash basket on the assumption that any black woman on the premises must be a custodian. The next scene shows NASA manager, Al Harrison, hands Johnson a piece of chalk at a Pentagon briefing so she can calculate (on the fly, without benefit of notes or calculators) the parameters of the splashdown zone for John Glenn’s impending mission. After a few scribbles on the blackboard, Johnson completed the task with aplomb. So stunning was her computational powers that when computers became available to calculate flight paths, Glenn insists that Katherine recheck their calculations before his rocket blasts off.

In 2015, at the age of 97, Johnson was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama in a ceremony at the White House, one of many other awards Johnson received for her extraordinary scientific achievements. Johnson died on 24 February, 2020.

Watch snippets of Hidden Figures (2016) here:

While the film focuses almost exclusively on the three womens’ role in NASA, Johnson’s memoir, co-written with two of her three daughters, gives a more intimate account of Johnson’s life. For example, she describes how as a child in small-town West Virginia, her thirst for knowledge was palpable and she would snuck out to follow her older siblings to school, peppered her parents and teachers with questions, and counted everything in sight. The book also frequently pivots from her story to describe her teachers’ race-based struggles and the history of the Black schools she attended or served. These asides slow the narrative but reveal something deeper: her immense pride in Black educational institutions and her gratitude to the Black educators who were her role models.

Katherine Johnson on learning (recorded at 2011 interview)

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