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Home / Science / Katherine Johnson, the "hidden figure" behind the first manned American spaceflight, is 100

Katherine Johnson, the "hidden figure" behind the first manned American spaceflight, is 100



Before the advent of electronic data processors, aka, computers in the 1960s, man – mostly women – was made up of NASA staff known as the "Computer Pool".

Black women, in particular, played a pivotal role in the pool, providing mathematical data for NASA's first successful space missions, including Alan Shepherd's 1961 mission and John Glenn's seminal spaceflight.

The most important among them was Johnson. But their work – and that of the "computer pool" – has hardly been mentioned in pop culture.

That changed thanks to "Hidden Figures," a best-selling novel that was later turned into an Oscar-nominated film.

A central scene in the film is Glenn. Johnson's work was so highly valued in his time that Glenn was aware of it. Computers were so new that even people at NASA were skeptical of them, and Glenn asked Johnson to personally confirm the computer calculations three times around the globe before traveling. One and a half days later, she proved that the computer was right.

In interviews, Johnson has resisted fully appreciating the work. As she said in an interview in 201
0, "We've always worked as a team, it's never just a person."

Johnson was born in 1918 in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, where training for blacks ended in eighth grade. The parents recognized the talent of their youngest daughter for math and sent them to high school on the campus of the West Virginia State Institute, a black college 100 miles away. It was well worth it and she graduated from high school at the age of 14 and graduated from West Virginia State in 1937 at the age of 18.

Like many women of her time, she became a teacher – but her goal was to become a research mathematician.

Following an order prohibiting racial discrimination in the defense industry, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, the aviation committee's main research center, began recruiting black people to the computer pool in the 1940s.

When she learned of a work opening in Langley for black women with maths degrees. She and her husband moved their three daughters to Newport News, Virginia.

For years, women have occupied a separate wing, "West Area Computing," and have used separate facilities.

There began Johnson in 1953.

After only two weeks she joined the flight research department of the facility. It worked there for years until the Soviet satellite Sputnik launched the space race between the US and the USSR and the conversion of NACA in the US space agency NASA advanced.

She advanced in briefing traditionally attended only by men, securing a place in the inner circle of the American space program.

She worked on trajectories for Shepard's Mercury Flight, America's first manned spaceflight, and earned some fame as "the girl" – as female mathematicians were called – double-checking the issue for Glenn's spaceflight.

Her work helped to map the Moon's surface before landing in 1969 and played a role in the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts. She retired in 1989 and was awarded the 2015 National Medal of Freedom.

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