Women in STEM: Katherine Johnson

Portrait of Katherine Johnson, Credits: NASA

The 2017 Oscar nominated film Hidden Figures depicted the true story about three female African- American mathematicians whose work at NASA revolutionized space travel. The leading woman, Katherine Johnson, significantly contributed towards NASA’s success during the Space Race – where there was constant competition between the US and USSR to achieve eminence in spaceflight capabilities.

Katherine was born in 1918 in West Virginia and from a young age displayed excellence and superior mathematical talent. Due to her stellar academic achievements in high school, she was hand- picked to be the first black woman to attend graduate school within the entire state of West Virginia. Katherine graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia State university at the age of 18. In 1953, Katherine’s career took off as she was hired by NASA as a research mathematician – she referred to herself and her fellow female colleagues as ‘computers with skirts’. Initially, her job consisted of analyzing data and performing calculations from flight tests and airplane black boxes. Naturally, Katherine excelled at her position and within her first two weeks of working at NASA, she was asked to join the all-white, male Langley’s Flight Research Division because of her accurate calculations and familiarity with analytical geometry. As a part of this team, Katherine conducted the trajectory analysis for the Freedom 7 mission, which was America’s first human spaceflight.

Katherine’s accomplishments continued to get more impressive as the years went on. In 1960, she became the first woman in the Flight Research Division Team to receive credit as an author of a research report. Specifically, Katherine and engineer Ted Skopinski co-authored an article that determined and explained the equations that described an orbital space flight and how its landing position can be specified*. However, the most noted of Johnson’s contributions occurred in 1956, when NASA was using electronic computers for the first time to calculate astronaut Johns Glenn’s orbit around earth. Glenn specifically requested that Katherine manually verify all the computer calculations and stated that until she did so he would not fly. Her reputation and accuracy were continually used to help establish confidence in digital computers and new technology that omitted human calculation. Additionally, Katherine’s expertise was employed to help calculate the trajectory for the Apollo 11 mission which sent the first men to the moon.

It is undeniable that Katherine Johnson has a plethora of accomplishments within space travel that would take pages to list. Despite being a woman and a person of colour, which made her part of a marginalized and prejudiced minority, Katherine surpassed many in her field. Her hard work, determination and intellectual capabilities did not go unnoticed by her co-workers at NASA and as a result she became one of the most influential mathematicians of her time.

The lesson to be learned from her journey is that in pursuit of your goals, particularly in male dominated fields, women will face challenges and be subjected to unfortunate stereotypes, however through persistent perseverance your efforts will be recognized and rewarded. Women in STEM are powerful sources of inspiration and who knows, perhaps the next Katherine Johnson is reading this article right now.

*Link to the published report: Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position

Contributed by Sarah Shah.

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