Nasa star Katherine Johnson took US to outer space

Mathematician also shaped history on Earth by inspiring black girls to reach for the stars

Published : 02 Mar 2020 07:48 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 07:18 AM

Duchess Harris

After 101 years, Katherine Johnson left this earth with a contribution that far exceeds her work at Nasa: She has inspired young black girls to reach for the stars. The film Hidden Figures made famous her work calculating the trajectory the Mercury space capsule had to follow to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. While these calculations were first derived by an electronic computer, astronaut John Glenn refused to launch until the computer’s data were confirmed by manual calculation.

And there was only one person he trusted fully to do that calculation: Johnson. Only when her work was complete did Glenn declare the mission a go. As Glenn recognised, Johnson possessed a special talent. But her contribution was only possible because she worked as one of a group of black human computers at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics [Naca] and Nasa. 

While these women were only able to work there because the federal government had been formally desegregated, they still had to overcome a segregated workplace that often failed to recognise the sum of their contributions. Honouring the legacy of Johnson today means recognising and uplifting their stories that are only beginning to be restored to history, more than 50 years after their climax in the 1960s.

John Glenn becomes first American to orbit Earth

That 1962 launch of Mercury represented a major “first” for Americans in their quest to overtake the Soviets in the space race. It turned Glenn into a national hero as he became the first American to orbit the Earth and only the third American to go into space. It also validated the government’s assertion that the United States could hold its own in the space race — and, by extension, protect its national security.

How this happened is the stuff of thrillers, really. In 1962, as the Mercury flight was being scheduled, Nasa’s electronic computers filled an entire room. They represented a technological advance, to be sure, but astronauts like Glenn still weren’t fully confident in a machine’s abilities to ensure their safety — and their very lives. One mathematical error could mean failing to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. It could mean sure death for the men in the capsule.

As administrators explained, the challenges were numerous. Nasa wanted Glenn’s capsule to land in a specific place in the ocean. If it struck land, he would die. If it approached Earth at too shallow an angle, it would bounce off the planet’s atmosphere. His anxieties intensified as weather and equipment failures caused cancellation of the launch five times.

Here is where Katherine Johnson stepped in. The then 44-year-old was assigned to double-check the trajectory calculated by her electronic counterpart, the room-size IBM 7090 computer. When Glenn heard about this work, he requested that she perform the manual calculations before the launch. When asked about her calculations years later, Johnson explained that the trajectory followed by the Mercury module was an arch. 

All she had to do was calculate where the capsule would be at any given time. The calculations were tricky because Johnson had to factor in the rotation of the Earth, but she had years of experience doing similar computations. Her calculations verified the information the computer produced, and finally, on February 20, the historic launch occurred successfully.

How a prediction came true

Four hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds after Mercury launched from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, the capsule landed safely right where Johnson predicted, near Grand Turk Island in the Caribbean. The hero’s welcome, reserved for Glenn, neglected to mention all the Nasa employees whose work had made Glenn’s safe orbit and return possible. 

Johnson wasn’t the only one among them; black human computer Miriam Mann, a chemist who had begun working at Naca’s Langley facility in 1943, also contributed to the preparations that made the first American’s orbit of the Earth the initial step toward that “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Yet, while Glenn’s orbit of the Earth was made possible by Katherine Johnson, it couldn’t have seemed more irrelevant to most black Americans. With all the problems the already turbulent 1960s were promising for them on Earth, how could they be preoccupied — or even interested — in what was happening beyond the Earth’s atmosphere?

Mainstream media’s Nasa coverage tended to focus on obvious heroes like Glenn, ignoring the contributions of black women completely. But even black newspapers like New York’s Amsterdam News and magazines like Ebony and Jet largely overlooked Johnson’s work and Nasa more broadly. The Amsterdam News, America’s oldest black newspaper, didn’t cover the Mercury launch at all.

It wasn’t until 1964 that Jet covered any Nasa news, and then only with a paragraph-long piece under the headline “Nasa Has Difficulty In Hiring Negroes in Dixie.,” reporting there were only 434 black employees among Nasa’s 9,200-person staff. Forty of these, Jet reported, worked in “scientific, technical, and engineering jobs (and) (t)he remainder in unskilled and clerical jobs.”

Black human computers

A year later, in 1965, Ebony ran a short item on one of the black human computers at Nasa accompanied by a photograph about Melba Roy. The article admired Roy’s accomplishments as program production section chief at Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, noting “(s)he heads a team of mathematicians who design large-scale computer programs aimed at determining the orbits of spacecraft launched at Cape Kennedy, Fla.” The article further referred to Roy as “one of the few ranking women with Nasa,” though it didn’t mention any of Roy’s black female colleagues.

Black women at Nasa didn’t attract feature-length attention in black media until 1992, when Mae Jemison, the first black woman to train as a Nasa astronaut (she joined Nasa in 1987), was featured on the cover of Jet. But even this coverage was deeply dissatisfying, failing to give the black women of Nasa, including the many of them who preceded Jemison and paved the way for her, their full due.

These two magazines were vital to black communities as sources of entertainment and information about issues that were particularly relevant to them — issues that were so often overlooked by mainstream media. But like the mainstream media, these outlets failed to inform, engage and excite readers about the extent to which black women were transforming mathematical and scientific study. In doing so, they missed an opportunity to make the space race relevant to black Americans.

They failed to elucidate the connections that would tie the space race to the race for civil rights, ultimately ignoring how the very existence of black human computers at Nasa was a sign of the profound sociocultural shifts toward racial equality also launched during the 1960s.

Untold tales of glory

This story remained hidden from the public, but it was proudly told in my family. My grandmother, Miriam Daniel Mann, worked with Katherine Johnson and she told my mother, Miriam Mann Harris, who told the story to me. As a historian, I stand on the shoulders of giants without the resources that I have. I was able to win a grant from the Virginia Humanities Council and share my family’s story with the world.

The art of recovery is a privilege and will allow my daughter to hand our narrative to the next generation in the form of a book, and a digital archive. Like the movie Hidden Figures, my research, which has been adapted to a play, focuses on the human computers as young girls with dreams. 

It aims to inspire others not just to think about space, but to consider the art of recovery and restoring the historical record, not just for Johnson and my grandmother, but all the black women whose labour have fuelled technological, political and economic advancement without recognition. This generation might think that they invented the term #Black Girl Magic. But it’s a concept that has been a century — 101 years since the birth of Katherine Johnson — in the making.

Duchess Harris, co-author of Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of Nasa and co-editor of Black Girl Magic Beyond  the Hashtag: Twenty-First-Century Acts of Self-Definition, is an American studies professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.