The “Hidden” Figure- Katherine Johnson

Written by: Rhiannon Belcher

In the Newly released movie “Hidden Figures” we learn of the incredible story of three African American women that were the brains of NASA (that were literally “Hidden figures” and were never fully given credit for their work until now). For this article, I am going to be focusing on one of the women in particular and that is Katherine Johnson. (Who in hidden figures was played by Taraji P. Henson) . Although, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were very important to the achievement of NASA, I would just like to focus on one of them.

History of the Katherine Johnson-

-Katherine Johnson (AKA. The girl who loved to count) was born on August 26, 1918. (That makes her 98 right now)

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-She grew up in White Sulphur Springs, WV

-She attended B.S., Mathematics and French, West Virginia State College, in 1937

Hired by NASA in June of 1953: She was handpicked out of many people to attend West Virginia’s graduate, along with 2 other black women. When Katherine was only 13 she was already attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College, and by 18 was enrolled in the college itself. Katherine graduated with the highest honors in 1937 and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia. Later in her life, she decided to quit her job because she was enrolled in a math teaching program. (She did not finish because she and her husband decided to have a family)

Katherine home-schooled her three daughters and in 1952 was offered a job by NASA. She would be working at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s). Her family moved to Newport so she could pursue her job for NASA. Two weeks into Katherine’s job she was given an assignment/project. She spent around four years analyzing data from flight tests and investigating plane crashes and wake turbulence. Unfortunately in December 1956 her husband passed away due to cancer.

In 1962, Katherine was asked to do work that she would soon become known for. Her job was to calculate the trajectory of where the capsule would land once it was descending. What probably was best known in the movie and part of her life was how there were no “colored bathrooms” at her office so she would have to run from one block to another to use the bathroom. There (in the bathroom) she would do work while using the bathroom. One day her boss got fed up with her always not being at the office (not knowing what the problem was) and yelled at her. There Katherine told him that there was no colored bathrooms and the next day her boss brought a sledgehammer and tore down the colored and white sign. As NASA was finally prepared to launch they called upon John Glenn who would be the first American to ever orbit the Earth (circling it 3 times).  As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl” (Referencing Katherine) to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, (She was smarter than the computer itself) but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine.  “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.

The flight was a success and major created competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Katherine Johnson will no longer be “hidden” in society because of her color or gender. Katherine is known for this statement “I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.” She is known as The girl who loved to count.

Information Acquired From:
https://www.nasa.gov/feature/katherine-johnson-the-girl-who-loved-to-count
https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Johnson
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