America’s triumph in the space race has been well documented and repeatedly shared throughout time. We all know that America was the first to put a man on the moon. But we don’t know about some of the key figures behind the scenes whose contribution made these accomplishments possible.
Their names have been forgotten by most, despite playing pivotal roles in history. Why is this important? It’s important because those names belong to African-American women who managed to prosper and break barriers at a time of racial segregation and inequality.
Hollywood has decided that these people deserve to have their stories told and put up on the big screen. Based on a book by the same name, Hidden Figures tells the story of a team of African-American female mathematicians who worked at NASA in the 1960’s in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement and worked on the mathematical data that was crucial to the first successful USA space missions. The movie, to be released in 2017, will star Octavia Spencer (The Help, Fruitvale Station), Taraji P. Henson (Empire) and Janelle Monae (Moonlight).
Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) is the focal point of the film, and we’ll be sharing some of her professional and person life as a woman who, despite the troubled times she lived in, was determined to use her skills and her love of maths to contribute to one of her country’s greatest achievements.
“It was her work on back-up procedures and charts that helped the crew of Apollo 13 return safely to earth after their mission was aborted following an oxygen tank explosion in 1970”
Born in 1918 in West Virginia, she showed talent in maths early on. She graduated from high school at the age of 14 and started university at 15. Whilst studying, prominent African American mathematicians mentored her.
She took every maths course that her university offered. She graduated with a degree in Maths and French with the highest honours by the time she was 18. Johnson was one of three African-Americans students and the only female to desegregate the West Virginia University Graduate school.
She worked as a teacher until 1953, when she began working at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (also known as NACA), NASA’s predecessor. Her original role was as a mathematician. At this time, female mathematicians were called ‘computers’ and she worked in the West Area Computing Unit, an all-black female group of mathematicians. During this time, Jim Crow laws, and both state and local laws that enforced racial segregation, were in effect. Women of colour had to be segregated from their white female counterparts.
After a few weeks, she was reassigned to an all-male flight research team where she would stay and become the only non-white, non-male member of the Space Task Force. Johnson calculated the trajectory for astronaut Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight in 1961. Mercury was the first human spaceflight program in the US.
She was so valued and respected for her work that astronaut John Glenn requested that she check all calculations made by electronic computers for his flight on Friendship 7 in 1962. It was on this flight that he became the first American to orbit the earth.
In 1969 she calculated the trajectory for the Apollo 11 flight to the moon. It was her work on back-up procedures and charts that helped the crew of Apollo 13 return safely to earth after their mission was aborted following an oxygen tank explosion in 1970.
She later became the Flight Research division’s first female author and co-authored a staggering 26 scientific papers. She continued to contribute to the space program until she retired in 1986.
Her work was essential to the history that we all know today and her impact was more remarkable than many are aware of. She has inspired many of female mathematicians and astronauts of colour.
She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015 for her contributions to the US aeronautics and space advances. In 2016 NASA opened the Katherine G. Johnson Computational research facility at Langley research centre, where she had worked, on the 55th anniversary of the Alan Shepard Mercury flight to space. She is currently 98 years old and she continues to encourage young people to pursue careers in science and technology.
“We will always have STEM with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering, and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics. Everything is physics and math.”
Katherine G. Johnson
Alicia Evans is an MSc Science Communication student with a background in Biomedical Science. Her interests include pathobiology, cell biology and anatomy. She enjoys Netflix, Marvel and singing to the Hamilton soundtrack.