'Computer In A Skirt' - The Woman Who Mapped Our Path To The Stars

20th September 2016

We are often surprised by how many important stories are forgotten, or are never even told. Everyone has a story of course, and not everyone can share it with the world. But often people’s individual stories become interwoven with the greater narratives of history, their lives inexplicably linked with events that defined humanity. Those who drove change and made a difference to the world in particular.

Catherine Johnson is one of those people. Along with a team of other people, including her particular contemporaries, her work put an astronaut in orbit, put a man on the moon and paved the way for young, particularly black women to work and excel in STEM fields back during a time when it was virtually impossible.

At a time in America’s when education for young black men – let alone women - was still a largely foreign concept met with hostility, Catherine Johnson followed her considerable mathematical talents, ignored the opposition and went on to not only excel but to do work which enabled massive change in the world.

Born nearly a century ago to a poor but hard working black family, Katherine Johnson loved numbers from a young age, saying “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.”

Her father quickly recognized her intelligence. He drove the family 120 miles so she could attend school and she excelled, graduating from High School at 14, and from West Virginia State College where she studied advanced mathematics at 18.

W.W. Schiefflin Clayor, only the third African American to earn a PhD. in mathematics who taught her and encouraged her to become a research mathematician.

However, as a young black woman in the 1930s, her options were limited. You could become a nurse or a teacher, and as Johnson herself said "That was it!". So despite her degree, Johnson got married, had children and became a maths teacher in a small school where she stayed until 1953.

That year, a relative told her that NACA were recruiting African American women as mathematicians so she promptly signed up.

As part of this early NASA team, Johnson was given the job of analysing data and carrying out precise mathematical calculations, referring to herself and her colleagues as "computers who wore skirts" in the absence of  modern computers to do the calculations digitally. Johnson said "They had a pool of women mathematicians, they just wanted somebody to do all the little stuff, while they did the thinking" but that wasn't enought for Johnson She was assigned to assist the all-male flight research team who were so impressed with her talents in analytic geometry that they ‘forgot’ to send her back.

Sadly even here there was segregation and division; her group was referred to as the ‘coloured computers’ and they were kept separate whilst working, during meals, and even when using toilet facilities.

However, by all accounts, Johnson ignored such nonsense, stating simply that she had done the work like anybody else and she deserved to be there. In 1958 the ‘coloured’ division was disbanded and from then on she worked as an aerospace technologist, but until 1964 when the Civil Rights act came about, it was still legal for her employers to discriminate against her. When she was told that women didn’t attend meetings she simply asked if there was a law against it, and when told no, started turning up. Asking if there was a law against something carried an awful lot more meaning at that time!

First page of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Throughout her career her bold, inquisitive and bright mind made her stand out, as she explained “The women did what they were told to do. They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.” We think this is known as not taking no for an answer!

As NACA moved closer to investigating space flight, Johnson’s experience and talents made her even more important and she became the only woman to be permanently pulled out of the computer pool to work on the Spacecraft Controls Branch.

In 1959 she precisely calculated the trajectory of the flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and next, the launch windows for his 1961 Mercury Mission. She also produced backup navigational charts in case of electronic failures, all without the help of digital computers.

In 1962 NASA used digital computers to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around the earth for the first time… but Glenn point blank refused to take part unless Katherine Johnson had personally done her own calculations and checked the computers results against her own.

Her results and the computers digital results matched perfectly and Glenn agreed to fly! Later on she worked with computers, and her reputation for accuracy ensured people’s confidence in these new-fangled machines.

Astronaut John Glenn

Johnson even went on to calculate the trajectory for what was arguably the most famous flight of all – the Apollo 11 flight that would take Neil Armstrong to the moon. We find it rather awesome that the moon landing - such a famous symbol and testimony to white, wealthy, male, scientific achievement - was actually made possible by the quiet efforts of a black, working class, former single mum and maths teacher. Her work continued to help further the Space Program until her retirement in 1986.

Johnson has been showered with accolades, among them the NASA Lunar Orbiter Award, three NASA Special Achievement Awards, 3 honorary university degrees and in 2015 she received the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Obama.

Johnson with her Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2015

She has also spent much of her retirement speaking to young people about the importance of STEM and the importance of diversity.

“We will always have STEM with us.” She tells them “Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics. Everything is physics and math.”

However it is sad that so little comparative progress has been made when it comes to women of ethnicity in STEM, particularly in mathematics. Johnson said about segregation that ‘I didn’t have time for that… don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.’  We hope her attitude is inspirational to anyone feeling marginalised!

It is hard to imagine the courage and determination Johnson must have shown back in the 1950s as a black woman working alongside these male scientists, and we hope her example is an inspiration to all the women in 2016 who are still having to battle to be taken seriously within STEM fields. 

The life story and accomplishments of Johnson and her female colleagues are now going to be celebrated in a seriously sassy looking Hollywood film which we will be reviewing in 2017.

It is called "Hidden Figures", starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe and Kevin Costner. We can’t wait. 

Johnson is still alive to this day! Check out this incredible interview with an incredible woman.