Years ago, on July 20, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and uttered the now-famous line, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But what we didn’t see and hear are the brave men and women on the sidelines who painstakingly calculated and analyzed data to make such space exploration possible.
One of the persons working behind the scenes of the Apollo 11 and many other space missions is mathematician Katherine Johnson. She has proved that whether male or female, young or old and whatever color one’s skin is, we all have skills and abilities in us waiting to be discovered and nurtured.
Inevitable love for Math
Fascinated by numbers and showing promising calculation skills at such a young age, Katherine was undeniably set for great heights. She finished high school at the age of 14. She graduated summa cum laude, with degrees in mathematics and French, at age 18, taking every Math course available in her university, West Virginia State College (now University).
From there, she pursued a career in teaching before joining the then-called National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Langley’s Research Center’s guidance and navigation department. Dubbed as a human-computer, she and a group of math-skilled African-American women analyzed data and made complex math computations for NACA engineers.
From there, her brilliance and assertiveness allowed her to climb the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) ranks. Katherine was reassigned from Langley West Computing Unit to the research Center’s Space Task Group to assist the group’s head, given her impeccable skills in analytic geometry. She broke barriers at one point in her career when she asserted to join an all-male briefing to get updated data firsthand.
Since then, she became an integral part of many space explorations, such as the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule and Apollo 13 Moon mission, among many others, standing as an inspiration to women and all women of color.
After retiring from NASA in 1986, she encouraged girls from all walks of life to be brave and pursue the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. With her contributions to math and science, her name lived on. Her alma mater, West Virginia State University, offered the Katherine Johnson Math Scholarship to African-American students who wish to pursue Math, Physics, and Astronomy courses.
As her legacy leaves on, she leaves us with a message she once told the youth, “We will always have science, technology, engineering, and mathematics with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and go away, but there will always be engineering and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics. Everything is physics and math.”