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Registered Associate Nutritionist

Registered Associate Nutritionist

International Women's History Month

To celebrate International Women's History Month I will be posting a series of inspiring women that have transformed careers and Industries that are (and were) mostly dominated by men, and have made the breakthrough

This week my spotlight is the Lady Katherine Johnson, as her work was documented in the successful film Hidden Figures. 

Before she helped send the first astronauts to the moon, won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and became the subject of an award-winning film, Katherine Johnson—who passed away on February 24, 2020 at the age of 101—was an anonymous human “computer” doing thankless but vital work at NASA. Her accomplishments have since been recognized, leading her to be regarded as one of the pioneers of the space age. Johnson’s gift for numbers allowed her to accelerate through her education. Born Katherine Coleman in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on August 26, 1918, her mother was a teacher. Her father was a farmer and a handyman. She enjoyed counting everything, had a gift for numbers, including being able to read by the age of four, thanks to her mother’s influence.  Their county did not offer public schooling for African-Americans past grade eight, and so her father made the decision to take the family on a 130 mile trip to Institute, West Virginia where she was able to attend high school.

They spent the school years in Institute and the summers in White Sulphur Springs. She was ten years old at the time and graduated at fourteen. The school was part of the West Virginia State College, a historically black college, and so she did her college there, taking every math course available. She had multiple mentors, including W. W. Schiefflin Claytor, only the third African-American to get a Ph.D. in math. At one point he said,

 “You’d make a good research mathematician and I’m going to see that you’re prepared.”

This sort of encouragement was something she received a lot of during her upbringing. He even designed a course on the geometry of space especially for her. At the age of 18, Johnson graduated with degrees in both mathematics and French. Johnson had plans to continue her education even further. In 1939, the newly married Johnson—then known as Katherine Goble—enrolled as a graduate student at West Virginia University after being selected as one of the first three Black students (and the first Black woman) to attend the state’s newly integrated graduate school program. After completing her first session, she discovered that she was pregnant and opted to withdraw from school in order to raise a family with her husband, James Goble. (They eventually had three daughters.) In the mid-1950s, NASA (then known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA) was looking into sending people to space for the first time—a task that required crunching a lot of numbers. Without the high-powered computers we have at an abundance today, the agency hired a team of women “computers” to do the complex math for low wages. Johnson was interested, but the first time she applied for the job there were no positions left for her. She applied a second time the following year and made it in.

We wrote our own textbook, because there was no other text about space. We just started from what we knew. We had to go back to geometry and figure all of this stuff out. In as much as I was in at the beginning, I was one of those lucky people

(Katherine Johnson)

 Computing The First American In Space Alan Shepard’s trajectory She did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 Freedom 7 mission, part of the Project Mercury flights and the first time an American went to space. Launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida, it was a 15-minute suborbital flight. The trajectory was a parabola peaking at 187.5 km (116.5 miles) up and traveling a downrange distance of 487.3 km (303 miles), splashing down in the Atlantic. The goals were to test how well Shepard handled the high g-forces during launch and the heat of atmospheric re-entry. The calculations involved basic geometry.


The early trajectory was a parabola, and it was easy to predict where it would be at any point. Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start. I said, ‘Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.

(Katherine Johnson)

 Astronaut John Glenn’s three orbits around Earth in 1962 marked a pivotal moment in the Space Race between the U.S. and Russia. His may be the face most people remember, but behind the scenes, Johnson played an important part in getting him off the ground. The orbital equations used to produce his mission had been uploaded to a computer, but this being the early 1960s, electronic calculators still were not a totally reliable method for handling sophisticated equations. Before climbing into the cockpit, Glenn requested that Johnson check the computer’s work by redoing all the math by hand, saying,

“If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” (John Glenn)

To start calculations, in principle all they needed to know was where you’d launch from on the Earth and where the Moon would be. While most people were concerned about getting there, she was more concerned about the return. Watching the events on TV during the mission, she recalled thinking that if the astronauts were off by a degree then they would fail to orbit the Earth. She was hoping that they’d gotten the calculations right. She says her greatest contribution to space travel was her help with calculations for syncing up the Apollo lunar lander with the command module in lunar orbit.

Her work did not end there. She also supported with contingency procedures for Apollo 13 when it experienced its malfunction while in space. She worked on the Space Shuttle, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on plans for a Mars mission. She retired in 1986. Segregation And Honors Racial segregation was still very much present in the US south at the time. Johnson experienced it throughout her life but never let it get in her way. In the movie, Hidden Figures, she has to walk a long distance to use the coloured women’s bathroom while working at Langley. In fact, it was Mary Jackson, a NASA engineer also featured in the movie who did so. Johnson instead used the unlabeled white women’s bathroom, at first not knowing about the segregation. When she found out, she just ignored it. She also experienced obstacles as a woman. She insisted on attending meetings that were normally for men only. Womens’ names were not included as co-authors on reports until her’s became the first — the first of 26 which she would co-author throughout her career. Of that career, she says

“I found what I was looking for at Langley. This was what a research mathematician did. I went to work every day for 33 years happy.”

Among the honors she’s received, on November 24, 2015, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom and on May 5, 2016, NASA named a new 40,000 square foot building at the Langley Research Center the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.

Here’s a short video interview that does a good job summarising  her attitude towards maths, work and life:

“Do your best, but like it, and then you will do your best.”