On May 5, 1961 Alan Shepard, Jr became the first American in space. Mercury-Redstone’s 15-minute flight was watched by some 45 million television viewers.
I was one of those eagerly watching. Our junior high school classes suspended the day’s teaching and brought in television sets so we could watch this great moment in history.
What exciting times! In the years following Americans continued to watch the launching of many rockets and learned the names of the astronauts who were heroes as the Mercury project launched six manned spacecraft between 1961 and 1963.
- Alan Shephard, Jr – first American in space in 1961.
- John Glenn – first American to orbit the earth in 1962.
- Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin – first to reach the moon in 1969.
Today these men’s names are easily recognized and recently a movie was even made about Neil Armstrong, whose first words as he stepped on the surface of the moon has been celebrated:
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
While these men have enjoyed fame, the women who worked behind the scene to make these space launches a success are known by few.
One of these women was Katherine Johnson. Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in 1918, Johnson clearly had a brilliant mind. In school she advanced ahead several grades and attended high school by the time she was thirteen. Enrolling in the black West Virginia State College, she graduated with highest honors in 1937 and began teaching at a black public school in Virginia.
Selected by Dr John W. Davis in 1939 Johnson, along with two male students, were the first black students to be enrolled in West Virginia University.
In 1952 Johnson learned of an all-black computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ at the Langley laboratory in Virginia. There Johnson analyzed data from flight tests and studied the effects of wake turbulence.
Johnson provided math for several of the engineers and did trajectory analysis for the first launch into space in 1961. As the engineers began to recognize Johnson’s expertise she was asked to work with them in constructing a worldwide communications network that linked tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, DC, Cape Canaveral and Bermuda. When John Glenn was preparing for his orbit around the earth he was concerned about the math computations that predicted where he would reenter the earth’s atmosphere. He was not comfortable with relying on the machines’ calculations. He asked them to “get the girl” to run the same numbers by hand that the computer had run. “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”
Johnson retired from NASA in 1986 after contributing to the Apollo mission sending men to the moon and working on the space shuttle program. She has received many honors including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This highest civilian honor was presented to her in 2015, at age 97, by President Obama. NASA also named a building after her – the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.
When you consider the time in which Johnson achieved such success – a time when women had much fewer options opened to them as we do now – but also a time when black Americans were still living under Jim Crow laws in the south – she is an amazing example of courage, determination and brains.
To read much more about this amazing woman and her fellow computers – Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, check out the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly.
A movie has also been made based on this book. I would recommend the movie, but to get the complete story, you need to read the book. As all movies do, some liberties were taken in the movie.
As they say “behind every successful man is a women” this is certainly true in our space program.
These women’s history should be taught in school along with the names of the astronauts.