NASA’s radiating star

By Chuck Wright | Mar 17, 2017

4-3-2-1 Zero! “God Speed John Glenn!” We all were turned into our black and white, sometimes round circled televisions, to witness this historic moments. During those tumultuous racial and sexist years, we were unaware of the women--especially the “Negro” woman--who were the “human calculators” behind the scene of the Space Race.

Women’s History Month is an excellent time to focus on how one black women helped America win the Cold War battle with the Soviet Union and how she continues to make American shine like a star in the night sky. This person was born on August 26, 1918. She had an obsession with numbers and the person NASA counted on when Glenn blasted off from Cape Canaveral on that cold February morning in 1961.

NASA’s major goals that day were to have John literally leave his fellow Earthleans behind. But it was more important to have him safely return to Mother Earth.

It wasn’t the white men and controllers of NASA’s space movements, nor an astronaut who figuratively yelled out, “Houston, we have a problem.” It was the space programs suffrages who did so, but they didn’t yell out verbally. Rather they use diplomatic skills, their discipline, along with their competencies to let the space lenders know by leaving them out of the space travel equation with sexist and racist.

Their message was that sexism and racism was interfering with the success of NASA. Not until Margot Lee Shetterly’s highly-researched and non-fiction book became the Oscar-nominated movie, Hidden Numbers, did the true story regarding how many African-American females helped jettison our floundering space program come to light.

Shetterly’s protagonist was Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, an American child mathematician prodigy who had been barred from directly working with whites males at the command center at NASA. Only her fantastic abstract math abilities coupled with her charming form of diplomacy and assertiveness allowed her to move up the apartheid status ladder.

Who is this Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson and one of our country’s outstanding scientist? That young woman is now almost 100 years old, but the importance of her contributions to science and to America will live on forever.

Katharine Coleman was born almost a century ago on Aug. 26, 1918 in the Jim Crow, race segregated state of West Virginia. As far back as she can remember Katherine was obsessed with numbers.

“I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to the church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed…anything that could be counted I did.”

At the young age of 15, this so-called human computer began studying mathematics and French at West Virginia State College. Three years later she graduated summa cum laude and went on to become the first “Negro” woman accepted into the desegregated graduate school at West Virginia University in Morgan Town.

In 1952 Katherine accepted to become part of the team of “aeronautics human computers” NASA assembled at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, VI.

Katherine was asked to perform complex math calculations that would eventually lead those with “The Right Stuff” to successfully blast through our Earth’s atmosphere. Her skills and assertiveness led to her being transferred from the African-American computing pool to the all-white male flight research division.

When Johnson mentally outperformed the room of white scientists, she was give more intricate mathematical duties. One task was to develop the 1961 plotting path for Alan Shepard’s historic journey to space.

The IBM electronic computers were new and some astronauts, including John Glenn, were leery of the numbers they put out. It was said “The (calculating) job wasn’t considered completed until Johnson was summoned to check the work of the machines, providing the go-ahead to propel John Glenn into successful orbit in 1962”.

Her personal and professional accomplishments earned Katherine even higher level assignments. She went on to perform “calculations for the historic 1969 Apollo 11 trip to the moon, and the following year, when Apollo 13 experienced a malfunction in space, Katherine’s contributions to the contingency procedures, in her own words, “helped ensure its safe return.”

Over the years, the accomplishments of the “human computer” began to mount. In November of 2015, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Then in May of 2016 NASA’s Langely’s 40,000-square-foot facility was name the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.

Russia has taken control of the space race. But how much was due to our sexist and raciest laws? Fifty years from now will a film director make an award-winning movie based on the USA losing out because a non-Christian, transgendered and disfigured child prodigy was pushed aside or was not let into our county?

Darn right, even with those senseless sexist and racist battles, Katherine Johnson became a bright shining star in America’s NASA program.


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