When we think of the Apollo program, most of us imagine the story of brave white male military test pilots, engineers and politicians. Nevertheless, the real heroes of the first Moon landing remain under-appreciated to this day. These women challenged the patriarchal structure of NASA. They faced racial discrimination and sexism on their way to performing crucial calculations for the Apollo 11 mission. Their bravery was portrayed in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. I would like to focus specifically on one of them, Katherine Johnson.
She was born in West Virginia, in 1918. Katherine was a brilliant student in school and skipped a few grades, enrolling in high school at the age of 13. She enrolled at the HBCU West Virginia State College at 18, and earned her degree there. As there were no opportunities for brilliant black students to pursue further education in graduate school, she went to teach in a public school after graduating with highest honors in 1937. Only in 1939, graduate schools were integrated in Virginia and she was chosen by the State’s president, along with two black men, to attend West Virginia University. She studied math, but after a year decided to abandon her studies in order to start a family with her husband.
After WW2, in 1952, she applied for a position in the computing unit of the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory. It was staffed solely by black women. Before the Apollo program, she mostly worked on wake turbulence and other engineering projects for the military. After the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, the focus at NASA shifted to the space race. She contributed to Glenn’s manned space flight in 1962, by working out orbital trajectories and co-authoring the report “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position” in years prior.
By 1962, IBM computers were being used more and more across the facility, and “human computers” were beginning to become obsolete. Nevertheless, John Glenn told Johnson a few days before to check the trajectory calculations, which were input into the IBM 7090 computer. She worked at NASA until the 1980s, mostly developing the space shuttle, until her retirement. She then visited various schools to inspire children to pursue a STEM career.
The situation at NASA in the 1960s and 70s was appalling. The highest ranking woman at the agency, Ruth Bates Harris, was fired for submitting a report that criticised the equal opportunity program for being a complete failure. At the time, NASA employed less racial minorities and women than any other federal agency. Furthermore, they were often relegated to low-level bureaucratic jobs, compared to males with equal qualifications. Fortunately, things have began changing in the 1980s and the latter half of the 1970s, with changes to the government. Read more about it an article by Kim McQuaid. In 2019, the first all-female spacewalk was conducted, which shows that things definitely moved in the right direction and we should remain optimistic for the future.
Johnson passed away in February 2020, at the ripe age of 101. To this day, she serves as a symbol of pursuing a career in STEM despite stereotypes, racial discrimination and sexism. Let’s hope that in years to come, the male dominance in STEM will begin to fade even more, as diversity brings innovation and creativity.
Davenport, C. (2019, December 9). At Nasa, women are still facing outdated workplace sexism. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/women/nasa-women-workplace-sexism-spacex-space-station-a9230801.html
Deb Kiner, firstname.lastname@example.org. (2020, February 20). ‘A real fireball of a ride’: John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962. Pennlive. https://www.pennlive.com/life/2020/02/a-real-fireball-of-a-ride-john-glenn-became-the-first-american-to-orbit-earth-in-1962.html
MCQUAID, K. (2007). Race, Gender, and Space Exploration: A Chapter in the Social History of the Space Age. Journal of American Studies, 41(2), 405–434. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0021875807003532
NASA. (2020, February). Katherine Johnson Biography. https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography/
Nature Editorial. (2020, March 12). Katherine Johnson (1918–2020). Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00749-3?error=cookies_not_supported&code=5a8e9bba-6790-46c9-92ee-b96f500b7cd0
st. Fleur, N. (n.d.). Katherine Johnson. History. https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/katherine-johnson