Loosely Connected to Greatness #WATWB

Katherine Johnson

I remember hearing a story on NPR last year about a book, “The Rise of the Rocket Girls” which told the story about women who had been recruited into service at NASA’s predecessor agency, The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to perform mathematical calculations before computers were commonplace. I thought about reading that book, but I quickly forgot that thought.

Almost a year later, part of that story arrived in my inbox, courtesy of my alma mater and the WVU Alumni Association. The story that I am linking to today for WATWB is about Katherine Johnson. Katherine Johnson is a black female physicist and mathematician. A fellow graduate of WVU, a leader in the work that put men into space and, on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, helped bring them safely home. She is also a recipient of the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom award.

Today, we look back in amazement and celebrate her accomplishments. Some younger people might look back in disbelief at the fact that NACA/NASA employed people to grind their way through orbital trajectories in a time before computers – or even that there was a time before computers. And yet, the math was probably the least difficult part of Katherine’s journey. Consider:

During the school year, Johnson, her three siblings and her mother lived 125 miles away from their home in White Sulphur Springs, WV because local schools only offered classes to African-Americans through the eighth grade.”

Johnson worked on the early space program, including computing the launch window for astronaut Alan Shepard’s 1961 Mercury mission. She authored a textbook on space math. She was so well-respected for her work, that John Glenn, whose orbit around the earth was calculated by computers, asked her to double-check the computer’s calculations.

It sounds absurd to say that I am proud to be connected to a university that did not deny Katherine Johnson an education. However, in the late 1940s, it was hard enough for women to get educated, let alone black women. In the 1950s and 60s, it was primarily government agencies that were hiring women and minorities for professional positions, and in the early 1950s, Katherine was still being forced to work in segregated offices.

Katherine’s story is one of achievement, purpose, service and contribution. She is not angry or bitter. She is proud of her service to NASA, but is quick to point out that she was part of a team.

I can’t begin to count the number of lessons we can learn from this remarkable woman.


The “We are the World” Blogfest is in its third month of a year-long journey. This blogfest’s goal is to spread the message of light, hope and love in today’s world. We are challenging all participants to share the positive side of humanity. This month’s co-hosts, Emerald Barnes, Eric Lahti, Inderpreet UppalLynn HallbrooksPeter Nena, Roshan Radhakrishnan, welcome participants and encourage all to join in during future months. #WATWB is a blog hop on the last Friday of every month. Click HERE to check out the intention and rules of the blogfest and feel free to sign up at any time between now and February of 2018.

The photos are all from NASA

57 thoughts on “Loosely Connected to Greatness #WATWB

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    1. Thanks Judy. I give a lot of credit to her parents, too, for working so hard to get her an education. She showed string math skills at a very early age. She graduated from college at 18 !

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  1. I heard about the movie first before the book. Myself I was astounded that space mathematics used to be done by hand.
    Thank you, Dan, for sharing the story, and for participating in the #WATWB.
    I’m co-hosting again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for co-hosting, Peter. I love the stories that are coming out of this effort. Apparently, this woman had a mind made for math and understanding space. A remarkable gift that she managed to apply where it was most needed.

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  2. I remember, when we started a business back in the 1980s building bank trading room systems that I checked all of the formulas we were given to ensure that they were correct. This meant disassembling the transactions and rebuilding them into a tight mathematic formula. It is a great feeling to do something like this and find that it is right. I have put “Rise of the Rocket Girls” on my Amazon wish list.

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed and can relate to this story. I have been in this business long enough to remember real math challenges that computers couldn’t quite handle (yet). Those days didn’t last long, but long enough for me to have to remember how to do some things by hand.

      For the record, we are, once again, rewriting a system at work that deals with somewhat complicated foreign currency transactions. We still have to work them out by hand to make sure we have the code correct.

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  3. I remember reading about the origin of the word “computer” and ran across this. After the French revolution, the mathematician Gaspard de Prony set about the task of generating standard trigonometric and logarithmic tables. He broke the job down into discrete parts and assigned each sub-task to a group.

    The third group consisted of sixty to eighty human computers. These had no more than a rudimentary knowledge of arithmetic and carried out the most laborious and repetitive part of the process. Many were out-of-work hairdressers, because, with the guillotining of the aristocracy, the hairdressing trade, which had tended the elaborate hairstyles of the elite, was in recession.

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  4. Brilliant post, Dan — to of my favorite non-fiction subjects, NASA and women in technology’s history. Well done.
    Not to be a killjoy but… I tried to Google it last time and saw a lot, but nothing that sounded right. What words does the acronym represent — WATWB?
    Have a good Memorial Day weekend. Hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “We Are The World” Blogfest – The last Friday of every month, until February 2018. We are asked to share a good news story each month. Sometimes, it’s hard to find one!

      I seem to be focusing on women. It wasn’t intentional, but my first three month’s have featured news stories about women in history. I may try to continue the trend, because I think women are under-reported in history, especially in science and technology, but not necessarily because they didn’t contribute.

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  5. This woman has probably forgotten more about math than most of us will ever know. And, good lord, if you asked a kid to do a math problem the way she did, with pencil, paper, and a slide rule, they’d run away screaming.

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  6. Thank you for this post. Katherine Johnson is a role model. Oh, I know what it was like. I was born and raised in Huntington, WV (Go Marshall and the Thundering Herd) in the 50’s and 60’s. Huntington, like Morgantown, was the ‘big city’. You didn’t have to go more than 20 miles to see a different life. I went to high school with someone much like Katherine Johnson. It is pretty exciting that Katherine is from your alma mater!

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    1. I’m happy to learn that you’re from WV. I haven’t met too many people who understand that part of the country. She graduated about 30 years ahead of me, but I still (want to) feel a connection.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Of course you do. What a great connection. As to WV, most people here in New England really don’t understand or know that part of our country. Almost heaven. The one organization I support, only one in the country devoted to reading-aloud to children as opposed to giving away books, is in WV. Best to you, Dan.

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  7. I love her story and that of the the other women in Hidden Figures, the film about the women mathematicians and engineers at early NASA. It was so inspiring to me. They overcame so many obstacles, racism and sexism. Katherine Johnson was a gifted student and thank goodness she had people who realized and saw that she got the right education. Her story and the stories of women like her are so important.

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  8. Such a pionneer woman. I almost always read the book before the movie but this time I saw Hidden Figures first. My hope is that this excellent movie will put Katherine Johnson (and any other woman with such under appreciated skills for too long) to the spotlight. Great post, Dan.

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  9. Hi Dan – I’ve got the book – bought after I’d missed the film … so I’ll get to both at some stage. We’ll keep uncovering worthy women … it’s great they are coming to the fore though … thanks for reminding us of her, and the two others and all women who were so instrumental, but perhaps who weren’t encouraged to shine or weren’t allowed to … cheers Hilary

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  10. Now, more than ever, we need to remind the world about brilliant minds such as this one. It seems that today it has become a bad thing to be *smart*. Scientists and other educated people are under attack as “elitists”. To counterbalance it, we need more wonderful stories like this one. Intellect needs to be nurtured and celebrated.

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  11. What a story. Women who do science face great discrimination and women in minorities more so and women of that generation! I can’t even begin to imagine the odds this lady must have faced and it is her indomitable spirit that helped her overcome all odds. The next time I reach out for my calculator, I will remember that there was a life before digitalisation….

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    1. Ha ha – I remember reaching for a slide rule. I also remember how little we heard about women in science, even in the 60s and 70s. Actually, it isn’t that much better today. It’s a shame. She had a lot to offer, as so many women do today.

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