Cracking complex mathematical equations without the help of a computer or even a calculator seems like a distant dream to most of us, however, back in the 1960’s it was humans, more specifically African-American women who were busy calculating equations to help send humans on space missions.
One such “human computer” who contributed to USA’s space missions during her tenure as a “computer” with National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) which later came to be known as NASA, is Katherine Johnson. On August 26, Johnson celebrated her 100th birthday.
Katherine Johnson, the ‘Human Computer’
Johnson has been widely recognized as a “human computer” who had overcome racial and gender discrimination through her work as a mathematician. She also played an important role in the success of the first manned space flight in the US as well as other subsequent flights as well. Born in 1918 in West Virginia, Johnson was the youngest among four siblings. Right from a very young age, she showed a knack for mathematics and numbers. Education in public schools for African-American children was not a norm in those days in the state. Defying the norms, she graduated high school at the young age of 14 and then entered a college to study maths and science.
Her legendary career at NASA lasted from 1953 to 1986 and within that time, Johnson not only broke down the barriers of gender and racial discrimination which was prevalent in the USA at that time but also set an example to millions of young African-American women. In 1953, when Johnson, who was a teacher then, heard about open positions at an all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory. Her love for mathematics led her to apply for the position, which she successfully bagged. Between 1953 and 1958, Johnson worked as a “computer”, where she was required to read data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other mathematical tasks. From 1958 until her retirement, Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist at the Spacecraft Controls Branch.
The first breakthrough which solidified Johnson’s capacity as a mathematician came in the year 1961 when she had calculated the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s mission Freedom 7 in May 1961, the first American man to go to space. She also calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury Mission.
Reportedly, when digital computers were new, NASA had famously asked Johnson to check the computer’s maths for America’s first orbital space flight by John Glenn in 1962.
Her contributions to the field of mathematics and space research are immense. With her paper “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position”, she became the first woman to be credited as an author for a research report in the Flight Research Division.
In September 2017, Langley’s Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility was opened which seeks to commemorate her contributions to space research and maths. In fact, her most famous work was highlighted in the 2016 movie, “Hidden Figures”.
The Logical Indian take
Breaking the shackles of gender stereotype, Johnson, with her work has set an example for all. Not only did she break norms back at a time when African-American children were mostly subjected to large-scale discrimination in the US but has also set an example by breaking gender stereotypes.