The Institute - September 2019 - 13
As IEEE marks the 50th anniversary of
the moon landing and spaceflight through
the Footsteps: IEEE's Commemoration of
Human Space Travel effort, The Institute
is highlighting IEEE members and other
pioneers, like Johnson, and the technologies that helped propel the program.
THE VALUE OF EDUCATION
In a 2017 interview with The Washington
Post, Johnson said she always wanted
to be a mathematician. She attended
high school when she was 10 years old,
but due to segregation at the time, she
wasn't allowed to attend her county's
high school in Greenbrier, W.Va. Her
family moved to Institute, W.Va., and
she attended West Virginia State College-now West Virginia State University-which offered high school courses
to black students.
She finished high school at age 14 at
West Virginia State, then continued taking
college courses there. She graduated in
1939 summa cum laude with a bachelor's
degree in mathematics and French. She
planned on continuing her education and
was selected as the first black woman in
the state to attend the graduate school
program at West Virginia University, in
Morgantown. She withdrew from the program after one semester, however, to start
a family with her husband, James Goble.
Johnson worked as a math teacher at a
black public school in Marion, Va.
According to her biography on the
NASA website, Johnson always knew
she eventually would leave teaching
to become a research mathematician.
In 1953 she joined NASA's predecessor,
the National Advisory Committee for
Aeronautics, at its Langley laboratory, in
Hampton, Va., as a pool mathematician.
Those mathematicians, called computers,
analyzed data collected from flight tests
and airplane black boxes.
Thanks to her understanding of analytical geometry, just two weeks after
she joined NACA, she was assigned to
the maneuver-loads branch of the Flight
Research Division. She spent the next
four years analyzing data from flight tests
and plane crashes.
MAKING SPACE FLIGHT POSSIBLE
When the Russian satellite Sputnik was
launched in 1957, the United States was
already working on sending satellites into
space, but Sputnik's debut led to the formation of NASA. Due to Johnson's work
at NACA, she was among the first employees hired by NASA in 1958.
Johnson, once known as a human
computer, reviews calculations done
by a physical computer, at NASA's
Langley laboratory, in Hampton, Va.
double-check the trajectory calculations
for Friendship 7. Because of the mission's
complexity, the space agency collaborated
with IBM in the construction of a worldwide communications network. They
built and linked tracking stations to IBM
computers in Bermuda, Cape Canaveral,
and Washington, D.C., so engineers could
follow the flight live. The computers had
been programmed with orbital equations
that would control the trajectory of the
Friendship capsule from blastoff to landing. Glenn, however, was nervous about
putting his life in the hands of machines,
which he believed to be prone to mistakes,
according to NASA.
According to Johnson's NASA biography,
Glenn asked engineers to "get the girl"-
meaning Johnson-during the preflight
check, because of her experience with
trajectory analysis. He wanted her to
run the same numbers that had been
programmed into the computer, but
by hand, on her desktop calculator. In
an interview with CNN, Johnson recalls
Glenn saying, "If she says they're good,
then I'm ready to go."
For her work on Friendship 7, in 2015
she was awarded the U.S. Presidential
Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest
civilian honor. At the White House ceremony, President Barack Obama said,
"No one knows that John Glenn wouldn't
fly unless Katherine Johnson checked
In 2017 NASA unveiled the Katherine
G. Johnson Computational Research
Facility at the Langley Research Center,
the same location where she started
her career at NACA. Earlier this year,
the agency renamed a facility in Fairmont, W.Va., that housed a program
that monitors the software used to track
NASA's high-profile missions. It's now
called the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility.
Working as a technologist for the spacecraft controls branch, she calculated
the path for astronaut Alan Shepard's
Freedom 7 mission in 1961, the first U.S.
In 1960 she became the first woman to
receive credit as an author of a research
report, "Determination of Azimuth Angle
at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over
a Selected Earth Position." In it, Johnson and her coauthor, engineer Ted
H. Skopinski, explained the equations
describing an orbital spaceflight in which -JOANNA GOODRICH
the craft's landing position is specified.
This article originally appeared online as
Her life changed in 1962, when astro- "Katherine Johnson, the Hidden Figures Mathematinaut John Glenn asked for Johnson to cian Who Got Astronaut John Glenn Into Space."
The Institute - September 2019
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