When John Glenn was preparing for his historic space flight in 1962, he was understandably nervous about landing safely. The mechanical computers in those days were notoriously prone to glitches and hiccups. He said, "Get the girl to run the numbers."

"The girl" was Katherine Johnson, a woman, Black, three children, a widow. So what, right? But consider Tom Brady and football. Or Mother Teresa and good works. Now consider Katherine Johnson and mathematics. Got it? Good.

She was born in White Sulpher Springs, W.Va. in 1918. She was ravenously inquisitive, especially with numbers. She was doing high school at 14, college at 18, highest honors, etc. Her first job was as a public school teacher. Despite segregation, doors began to open. Eventually she applied to NASA.

There she was placed in a "pool" of mathematicians who were basically human computers. They analyzed data from flights and did very complicated equations regarding orbital trajectories, wind turbulence and the like. Johnson excelled at this but was also peacefully assertive. She attended meetings, asked questions, proposed theories. All this in a room full of white guys.

Her quiet genius emerged like the moon in a darkening sky. So when John Glenn requested "the girl," everyone knew who she was.

Johnson took to her simple desk with its desktop calculator. She methodically re-checked the math in all the intricate calculations. It took two days. Finally, the results were given to Glenn. Satisfied, he entered the Friendship 7 space module. He circled this azure planet three times, splashing down safely near Cuba.

Katherine Johnson co-authored over 40 scientific papers dealing with the space program. In her career she amassed multiple honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. "I always loved to count", said she.

This Mother's Day, can we shut up about gender preference, beer boycotts, and climate change for once? Can we focus on people like Katherine Johnson, who are good and giving and very, very smart?

Judith Melton is a resident of Berryville. 

(2) comments

Spock Here

Thank you for reminding us about this brilliant, hidden figure

Catherine Giovannoni


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