Katherine Johnson loved to count. In fact, she counted everything, even the dishes she was washing. It was her amazing ability for calculating that helped put Apollo 11 in orbit, allowing mankind to land on the Moon for the first time.
Great scientific missions are the result of the combined effort of large teams in which all contributions count, like those of Johnson and other African-American women whose work at NASA was unknown to the public at large until the movie “Hidden Figures” came out in 2016.
She was one of a team of women at the Langley Research Center who calculated the trajectories of the first space launches. These operations are now done by computers, but in the sixties, “computers wore skirts” in her words, which have been included in the numerous documents that NASA has dedicated to her on its website.
It was her calculations that helped the Apollo 11 mission succeed and Neil Armstrong to walk on the Moon in 1969, but she also calculated the trajectory for the first American in space, Alan Shepherd, in 1961.
When NASA began using computers for the mission in which John Glenn orbited Earth for the first time in 1962, they asked her to check the machine’s calculations. “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go,” said the astronaut, according to Johnson.
In fact, NASA emphasizes that it “could not have done these things without Katherine Johnson and her love for math!”
Johnson was a curious and brilliant girl who was born on August 26, 1918, at White Sulphur Springs, Virginia. She started high school when she was ten years old. When she went to college, she enrolled at West Virginia State, where she graduated summa cum laude with degrees in Mathematics and French in 1937. She then took on a teaching job at a public black school.
“I was always around people who were learning something,” she said. “I liked to learn. You learn if you want to.”
Johnson’s life took another turn in 1952, when a relative told her there were jobs going in the West Area Computers section (where the African-Americans worked) at the Langley Laboratory of NACA (later called NASA), so she and her husband decided to move to Hampton, Virginia.
A decisive woman who was gifted at leadership, she didn’t limit herself to making calculations but asked to attend meetings with the engineers, something unheard of for an African-American woman. However, she managed it eventually, leading the way and earning the respect of her colleagues.
This happened in the fifties under the racial segregation laws, although Johnson says she “didn’t have time for that” and remembered what her father had taught her. “‘You’re as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better. I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.”
She didn’t feel the segregation at work either. “You were doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it.” Although, for example, when she started working with whites, her colleagues made her use a different coffee pot.
That’s one of the stories told in the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly, which the film of the same name is based on and which recovered Johnson from obscurity, as well as two of her colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, played by Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, respectively.
Johnson worked at the Langley center until 1989, taking part in projects such as the Space Shuttle and authoring or coauthoring more than twenty scientific reports.
Her long career was celebrated in 2015 when, at the age of 97, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the US president, Barack Obama, which is the highest civilian award in the country. Last year, NASA named a new computer research center after her.
Johnson, who has died at the age of 101, was a defender of hard work, but above all enjoying it. “I went to work every day for 33 years happy. Never did I get up and say, ‘I don’t want to go to work.’”