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Katherine Johnson was an African-American mathematician from 1953 to 1986 working for NASA. She was a machine which was human. Johnson was a trailblazer at a time when minorities had very few positions in mathematics and science. Her work in determining the routes to fly in spaceships was monumental, helping NASA successfully put an American in orbit around Earth. Then her work helped to land astronauts on the moon. Katherine Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, Western Virginia, in 1918. She loved to count things, as a young girl. She counted it all, from the number of steps she took to get to the road to the number of forks and plates she washed when she was making the dishes. Johnson was raised with a passion for math. She was very keen on going to school at a young age. Now in her 90s, Johnson can vividly remember watching her older siblings go to school and wishing she could go with them. Once Johnson finally started school she excelled so much that she was in high school by the age of 10. She will start college by age 15!
Johnson was involved in the maths program at West Virginia State College. She enjoyed being surrounded by intelligent people, she said, and knew all the teachers and students on campus. One of her professors of mathematics, renowned Dr William W. Schiefflin Claytor, acknowledged the brilliant and inquisitive mind of Johnson. “You will be making a great mathematician for science”, he told her. (A research mathematician does a lot of things, one of which is solving major math problems.) Claytor then encouraged her to become one.
Johnson said, ‘Many professors are telling you that you’d be good at this or that, but that career path isn’t always helping.Professor Claytor made sure that I was trained to be a mathematician in research.’ Claytor made sure Johnson took all the math classes she needed to fulfill her passion for life. He also created a class about outer space geometry — only for her. Geometry is the study of lines and angles and shapes.
When Johnson graduated from college it was still segregated from the United States. During this process, ‘segregation’ has meant that in many ways and events different races have been segregated from each other. African-Americans have never been able to get math and science jobs. It was also very rare for women of any race to hold mathematics degrees. Johnson’s only professional job available at that time was teaching after graduation.She taught school for several years but stopped when she had children and was married. She began teaching again after her husband became ill, to support her family.
While Johnson was 34, she was applying for a position at the National Aeronautics Advisory Committee, or NACA. NACA was the official agency name that later became NASA. NACA had just begun its work on researching space in the early to mid-1950s. NACA hired women — including African-Americans — to become ‘computers.’ These female computers measured the engineers ‘ mathematics.” While Johnson was 34, she was applying for a position at the National Aeronautics Advisory Committee, or NACA.
As Johnson worked with the other female machines on math problems she would ask questions. She didn’t just want to do the research — she wanted to know the ‘how’s’ and the ‘why,’ then the ‘why nots.’ Johnson started to stand out by asking questions.
Women were not allowed to attend meetings with the scientists and the male engineers. Johnson decided to go to these meetings so she went to learn more about the programs. She was renowned for her geometry instruction, and began working with men’s teams. She was gradually regarded as a leader and the men relied increasingly on her to get the answers that they wanted. Women were not allowed to attend meetings with the scientists and the male engineers. Johnson decided to go to these meetings so she went to learn more about the programs. She was renowned for her geometry instruction, and began working with men’s teams. She was gradually regarded as a leader and the men relied increasingly on her to get the answers that they wanted.
NACA officially became NASA in 1958. Johnson was a member of the discovery team soon afterwards. She began to measure the flight path, or trajectory path, for the rocket to send the first American in 1961 into space. Astronaut Alan Shepard was the Canadian. The engineers understood when and where they wanted to land Shepard’s space capsule, but the tricky part was to determine when and where to launch the rocket. Johnson had it worked out! And her calculations helped bring the first American into orbit around Earth in February 1962. He was named after John Glenn.
President John F. Kennedy threatened the nation in September 1962 with sending a man down to the moon. The equations of maths for sending a man to the moon is identical to those for putting a man in orbit. But this time it needed a lot more calculations.The mission would include a crew of three astronauts heading off from Earth to the moon; two astronauts landing on the moon; and then all three successfully returning to Earth.
Johnson collaborated with the NASA team to find out where and when to launch the rocket and get it on the right trajectory to land on the moon. Johnson’s estimates have once again been instrumental in NASA’s progress. On July 20, 1969, astronauts walked on the moon for the first time with the knowledge that she received.
In 1986 Katherine Johnson had retired from NASA. She received an honorary doctorate in science from the University of West Virginia and West Virginia State University in 2016. She’s enjoyed traveling since her retirement, playing bridge (a card game), and spending time with her family and friends. She also told the students to continue to study and to work hard.ds. She always liked to talk about school with the students. She inspired students to learn more about science and mathematics — and never give up on their dreams.
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