Categories: HistoryNASA

The Life of Katherine Johnson Shows that ‘Hidden Figures’ Are Important to History

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson did more than just calculate rocket trajectories for early space missions. Her story, when it was finally told, completely changed people’s perceptions about who has been – and who can be — important in history.

Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote about Johnson’s life in the book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” called her writing a “recuperative history.” She brought the bits and pieces of people’s lives together to help tell the full story of NASA’s history.  

“The women in ‘Hidden Figures’ upend all our perceptions of what it means to be black, to be female, to be a scientist and to be American,” Shetterly said in a speech at the University of Minnesota in 2017. She added that we need to keep finding and telling “these stories until we have the entire spectrum of the experience, not just the tiny slices of the extremes of good experiences or bad experiences, when most of life happens in the middle.”

Johnson died this week at the age of 101, and has been lauded an American hero.

“Ms. Johnson helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of color in the universal human quest to explore space,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “At NASA we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her.”

The “Hidden Figures” book and the 2016 film that followed, tells the stories of Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, Christine Darden and others during a time of Jim Crow laws, when blacks were relegated to the status of second-class citizens and lived under the conditions of legal segregation in the southern United States.

These women worked as mathematicians in the 1940s, 50s and 60s at the all-black West Area Computing section at the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia, part of NASA’s founding organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA).  At that time, doing the tedious mathematical calculations by hand for aeronautics and then the early space missions was considered “women’s work,” Shetterly said.  

“But these women rolled up their sleeves and were really critical to the work that needed to be done,” she said. “They were serving our country and serving our country’s highest ideals.”

The several dozen African American women who were part of the West Area Computing section were well-qualified and well-educated – some had more education than their white counterparts. The women were dedicated, and their high-quality work powered NASA’s first successful missions. At the same time, Virginia’s segregation laws restricted the women to where they could work and what bathroom they could use.

“Our office computed all the trajectories,” Johnson told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in 2012. “You tell me when and where you want it to come down, and I will tell you where and when and how to launch it.”

In 1961, Johnson computed the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 Mission, the first to carry an American into space. The next year, as famously portrayed in the “Hidden Figures” movie, Johnson manually verified the calculations of NASA’s IBM 7090 computer, which would control the trajectory of the capsule in John Glenn’s Friendship 7 orbital mission. As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—Katherine Johnson—to run the same numbers, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. 

“If she says they’re good,’” Johnson recalled the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success, and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space.

Johnson considered her work on the Apollo missions to the Moon to be her greatest contribution to space exploration. Her calculations helped the lunar lander rendezvous with the orbiting Command and Service Module. She also worked on the Space Shuttle program before retiring in 1986.

Before “Hidden Figures” the seminal work done by Johnson and her co-workers went largely unnoticed. Even though the “human computers” – who were later called “math aides” — were a key part in all mission analysis and planning, they were unheralded, even within NASA.  

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden presents an award to Katherine Johnson, the African American mathematician, physicist, and space scientist, who calculated flight trajectories for John Glenn’s first orbital flight in 1962, at a reception to honor members of the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

But after the book and movie brought attention to these women mathematicians, NASA renamed a computing facility for Johnson in February 2019, and a street in front of NASA headquarters in Washington DC was renamed “Hidden Figures Way.” Johnson received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, and Christine Darden received Congressional Gold Medal in 2019, while Vaughan and Jackson received theirs posthumously.

Shetterly said this highlights the power of a narrative. “I did not realize how powerful it is to tell a story,” she said in 2017. “It’s this magical thing when you put everything together — not just as facts — but into a story waiting to be told.”

“Hidden Figures” was certainly an inspiration as I researched and wrote the book “Eight Years to the Moon,” as it showed me that everyone has a story and that sometimes the untold stories of people who worked behind the scenes can be as compelling as those in the limelight.

If the telling of Johnson’s story has a lasting effect, I hope it shows us how we should always try to use the right equation of looking beyond our differences to find the commonality between us, as well as finding the value in everyone’s life and contributions.

And we all should continue to look for and appreciate the ‘hidden figures’ in our own lives, those who make differences, both large and small.

To read more about Katherine Johnson, read NASA’s “The Girl Who Loved to Count,” and “Celebrating the Life and Career of Katherine Johnson.”

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004. She is the author of a new book on the Apollo program, "Eight Years to the Moon," which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible. Her first book, "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond.

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