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 Uppal, Lynn Hallbrooks, Peter 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