[Marxism] Katherine Johnson Dies at 101; Mathematician Broke Barriers at NASA
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Feb 24 14:13:58 MST 2020
(My review of "Hidden Figures", the film about Katherine Johnson and her
African-American female colleagues at NASA:
Rent "Hidden Figures" on YouTube for $3.99:
NY Times, Feb. 24, 2020
Katherine Johnson Dies at 101; Mathematician Broke Barriers at NASA
By Margalit Fox
They asked Katherine Johnson for the moon, and she gave it to them.
Wielding little more than a pencil, a slide rule and one of the finest
mathematical minds in the country, Mrs. Johnson, who died at 101 on
Monday at a retirement home in Newport News, Va., calculated the precise
trajectories that would let Apollo 11 land on the moon in 1969 and,
after Neil Armstrong’s history-making moonwalk, let it return to Earth.
A single error, she well knew, could have dire consequences for craft
and crew. Her impeccable calculations had already helped plot the
successful flight of Alan B. Shepard Jr., who became the first American
in space when his Mercury spacecraft went aloft in 1961.
The next year, she likewise helped make it possible for John Glenn, in
the Mercury vessel Friendship 7, to become the first American to orbit
Yet throughout Mrs. Johnson’s 33 years in NASA’s Flight Research
Division — the office from which the American space program sprang — and
for decades afterward, almost no one knew her name.
Mrs. Johnson was one of several hundred rigorously educated, supremely
capable yet largely unheralded women who, well before the modern
feminist movement, worked as NASA mathematicians.
But it was not only her sex that kept her long marginalized and long
unsung: Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, a West Virginia native who
began her scientific career in the age of Jim Crow, was also
In old age, Mrs. Johnson became the most celebrated of the small cadre
of black women — perhaps three dozen — who at midcentury served as
mathematicians for the space agency and its predecessor, the National
Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
Their story was told in the 2016 Hollywood film “Hidden Figures,” based
on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book of the same title, published
that year. The movie starred Taraji P. Henson as Mrs. Johnson, the
film’s central figure. It also starred Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe
as her real-life colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.
In January 2017 “Hidden Figures” received the Screen Actors Guild Award
for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture.
The film was nominated for three Oscars, including best picture. Though
it won none, the 98½-year-old Mrs. Johnson received a sustained standing
ovation when she appeared onstage with the cast at the Academy Awards
ceremony that February.
Of the black women at the center of the film, Mrs. Johnson was the only
one still living at the time of its release. By then, she had become the
best-known member of her formerly unknown cohort.
In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of
Freedom, proclaiming, “Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by
society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the
boundaries of humanity’s reach.”
In 2017, NASA dedicated a building in her honor, the Katherine G.
Johnson Computational Research Facility, at its Langley Research Center
in Hampton, Va.
That year, The Washington Post described her as “the most high-profile
of the computers” — “computers” being the term originally used to
designate Mrs. Johnson and her colleagues, much as “typewriters” was
used in the 19th century to denote professional typists.
She “helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space,” NASA’s
administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said in a statement on Monday, “even as
she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of
color in the universal human quest to explore space.”
As Mrs. Johnson herself was fond of saying, her tenure at Langley — from
1953 until her retirement in 1986 — was “a time when computers wore skirts.”
For some years at midcentury, the black women who worked as “computers”
were subjected to a double segregation: Consigned to separate office,
dining and bathroom facilities, they were kept separate from the much
larger group of white women who also worked as NASA mathematicians. The
white women in turn were segregated from the agency’s male
mathematicians and engineers.
“As Good as Anybody”
But over time, the work of Mrs. Johnson and her colleagues — myriad
calculations done mainly by hand, using slide rules, graph paper and
clattering desktop calculating machines — won them a level of acceptance
that for the most part transcended race.
“NASA was a very professional organization,” Mrs. Johnson told The
Observer of Fayetteville, N.C., in 2010. “They didn’t have time to be
concerned about what color I was.”
Nor, she said, did she.
“I don’t have a feeling of inferiority,” Mrs. Johnson said on at least
one occasion. “Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.”
To the end of her life, Mrs. Johnson deflected praise for her role in
sending astronauts into space, keeping them on course and bringing them
“I was just doing my job,” Ms. Shetterly heard her say repeatedly in the
course of researching her book.
But what a job it was — done, no less, by a woman born at a time, Ms.
Shetterly wrote, “when the odds were more likely that she would die
before age 35 than even finish high school.”
Creola Katherine Coleman was born on Aug. 26, 1918, in White Sulphur
Springs, W.Va., the youngest of four children of Joshua and Joylette
(Lowe) Coleman. Her mother was a schoolteacher, her father a farmer.
From her earliest childhood Katherine counted things: the number of
dishes in the cupboard, the number of steps on the way to church and, as
insurmountable a task as it might pose for one old enough to be daunted,
the number of stars in the sky.
“I couldn’t wait to get to high school to take algebra and geometry,”
Mrs. Johnson told The Associated Press in 1999.
But for black children, the town’s segregated educational system went as
far as only sixth grade. Thus, every fall, Joshua Coleman moved his
family 125 miles away to Institute, W.Va.
In Institute, Katherine’s older siblings, and then Katherine, attended
the high school associated with the West Virginia Collegiate Institute,
a historically black institution that became West Virginia State College
and is now West Virginia State University.
Mr. Coleman remained in White Sulphur Springs to farm, and, when the
Depression made farming untenable, to work as a bellman at the
Greenbrier, a world-renowned resort there.
Katherine entered high school at 10 and graduated at 14. The next year
she entered West Virginia State. By her junior year, she had taken all
the math courses the college had to offer.
Her mentor there, William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, only the third
black person to earn a doctorate in mathematics from an American
university, conceived special classes just for her.
“You would make a good research mathematician,” he told his 17-year-old
charge. “And I am going to prepare you for this career.”
“Where will I find a job?” Katherine asked.
“That,” he replied, “will be your problem.”
After graduating summa cum laude in 1937 with a double major in
mathematics and French, she found, unsurprisingly, that research
opportunities for black female teenage mathematicians were negligible.
She took a job as a schoolteacher in Marion, Va.
In 1940, she was chosen by the president of West Virginia State to be
one of three black graduate students to integrate West Virginia
University, the all-white institution in Morgantown.
Two years earlier, ruling in the civil-rights case Missouri ex rel.
Gaines v. Canada, the United States Supreme Court held that where
comparable graduate programs did not exist at black universities in
Missouri, the state was obliged to admit black graduate students to its
white state universities. In the wake of that decision, West Virginia’s
governor, Homer Holt, chose to desegregate public graduate schools in
Now married to James Francis Goble, a chemistry teacher, she entered
West Virginia University in the summer of 1940, studying advanced
“The greatest challenge she faced,” Ms. Shetterly wrote, “was finding a
course that didn’t duplicate Dr. Claytor’s meticulous tutelage.”
But after that summer session, on discovering she was pregnant with her
first child, she withdrew from the university. She returned with her
husband to Marion and was occupied with marriage, motherhood and
teaching for more than a decade.
NASA Opens to Women
Then, in 1952, Katherine Goble heard that Langley was hiring black women
The oldest of NASA’s field centers, Langley had been established by the
National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1917. In 1935, it began
hiring white women with mathematics degrees to relieve its male
engineers of the tedious work of crunching numbers by hand.
Within a decade, several hundred white women had been employed as
computers there. Most, unlike the male scientists at the agency, were
classified as subprofessionals, paid less than their male counterparts.
In June 1941, as the nation prepared for war, President Franklin D.
Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, barring racial discrimination in
the defense industry. In 1943, with the wartime need for human computers
greater than ever, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, as the
research facility was then known, began advertising for black women
trained in mathematics.
Among the first hired was Dorothy Vaughan, who began work that year. In
1951, Mrs. Vaughan became the first black section head at NACA, as the
advisory committee was known, when she was officially placed in charge
of Langley’s West Area Computing Unit, the segregated office to which
the black women were relegated.
It was in this unit that Katherine Goble began work in June 1953,
tabulating sheets of data for the agency’s engineers.
By the time she arrived, the company cafeteria had already undergone de
facto desegregation: Its “Colored Computers” sign, designating a table
in the back for the women, had been a salubrious casualty of the war
years. But the separate bathrooms remained.
Quite by accident, Katherine Goble broke that color line herself. While
the agency’s bathrooms for black employees were marked as such, many
bathrooms for whites were unmarked.
Without realizing it, she had been using a white women’s restroom since
her arrival. By the time she became aware of her error, she was set in
her routine and disinclined to change. No one took her to task, and she
used the white bathrooms from then on.
Two weeks into her new job, she was borrowed by the Flight Research
Division, which occupied an immense hangar on the Langley grounds.
There, the only black member of the staff, she helped calculate the
aerodynamic forces on airplanes. For that task, as she quickly
demonstrated, she came armed with an invaluable asset.
“The guys all had graduate degrees in mathematics; they had forgotten
all the geometry they ever knew,” Mrs. Johnson said in the Fayetteville
Observer interview. “I still remembered mine.”
She remained in the division for the rest of her career.
By the early 1960s, with the United States provoked by Soviet prowess in
space, NASA was under great pressure to launch an astronaut. It fell to
the Flight Research Division to do many of the associated calculations.
“Our assignment was the trajectory,” Mrs. Johnson explained to The
Associated Press. “As NASA got ready to put someone in space, they
needed to know what the launch conditions were. It was our assignment to
develop the launch window and determine where it was going to land.”
Their work was secret — at times even from the mathematicians themselves.
“We were the pioneers of the space era,” Mrs. Johnson told The Daily
Press, a Virginia newspaper, in 1990. “You had to read Aviation Week to
find out what you’d done.”
She routinely logged 16-hour days, once falling asleep at the wheel of
her car and waking up — safe, providentially — at the side of the road.
But the work engaged her deeply.
“I loved every single day of it,” she told Ms. Shetterly. “There wasn’t
one day when I didn’t wake up excited to go to work.”
It helped sustain her through the death of her first husband from brain
cancer in 1956, leaving her, at 38, a widow with three adolescent
daughters. She married James A. Johnson, a United States Army captain,
Over the years, Mrs. Johnson published more than two dozen technical
papers. She was among the first women at NASA to be a named author or
co-author on an agency report.
Ceaselessly curious about the aerospace technology that underpinned her
work, she made it possible for women to attend the agency’s scientific
briefings, formerly closed-door affairs reserved for male staff members.
(“Is there a law against it?” Mrs. Johnson asked, and when her male
colleagues, after some head-scratching, concluded that, no, there was no
law, they let her in.)
After retiring from NASA, Mrs. Johnson became a public advocate for
mathematics education, speaking widely and visiting schools.
Her death was announced by NASA. She is survived by two daughters,
Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore; six grandchildren; and 11
great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Connie Garcia, died in 2010; her
second husband, James Johnson, died in 2019.
An autobiography by Mrs. Johnson for young readers, “Reaching for the
Moon,” was published last year.
In 2016, Mrs. Johnson, self-effacing as ever at 98, seemed somewhat
indifferent to the fuss surrounding the feature film about her life.
“I shudder,” she told The New York Times that September, some three
months before the film’s release, having heard that the screenwriters
might have made her character seem a tiny bit aggressive. “I was never
aggressive.” (As things transpired, Mrs. Johnson liked the finished film
very much, Ms. Shetterly said in an interview for this obituary in 2017.)
Mrs. Johnson may not have been aggressive, but she was assuredly
esteemed. An index of just how esteemed she was came from Mr. Glenn,
Mercury astronaut and future United States senator, who died in 2016.
In early 1962, a few days before he prepared to orbit the Earth in
Friendship 7, Mr. Glenn made a final check of his planned orbital
trajectory. The trajectory had been generated by a computer — not the
flesh-and-blood kind, but the electronic sort, which were starting to
supplant the agency’s human calculators.
Electronic computation was still something of a novelty at NASA, and Mr.
Glenn was unsettled by the use of a soulless mass of metal to divine
something on which his life depended.
He asked that Mrs. Johnson double-check the machine’s figures by hand.
“If she says the numbers are good,” he declared, “I’m ready to go.”
Margalit Fox is a former senior writer on the obituaries desk at The
Times. She was previously an editor at the Book Review. She has written
the send-offs of some of the best-known cultural figures of our era,
including Betty Friedan, Maya Angelou and Seamus Heaney.
More information about the Marxism