West Virginian of the Year: Katherine G. Johnson

Photos courtesy of NASA
Johnson receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, as Willie Mays looks on. Born in segregated White Sulphur Springs, Johnson went on to have a hugely influential career in mathematics. Her work was integral to every major American space flight.
Johnson, in 1980, works at NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia. She worked at NASA for 33 years, calculating the trajectories of the first American in space and the Apollo 11 mission, which landed the first humans on the moon.
Johnson in an undated photo. White Sulphur Springs did not offer education to African-Americans beyond eighth grade, so, during the school year, her family moved to Institute where Johnson and her three siblings could attend West Virginia State College.
Johnson talks with former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin at an education event in 2011. Melvin said the 1,000 students they met with were blown away by Johnson’s accomplishments.
Katherine Johnson works at her desk with some of the technology of the era. “Katherine was a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science, and reach for the stars,” said President Barack Obama.

May 5, 1961. Cape Canaveral, Florida.

It’s 9:34 a.m. A Friday. There are 45 million people, one quarter of the United States, watching on live television.

Alan Shepard, a 37-year-old Naval test pilot is strapped into a plastic seat, inside a small capsule, about 6 feet wide.

Beneath Shepard, beneath that seat, is an eight-story, 66,000-pound missile filled with a mix of ethyl alcohol and liquid oxygen.

Three weeks earlier, a Soviet cosmonaut had become the first human in outer space, sparking American fear of a lost space race. The United States’ hopes of catching up were pinned on Shepard’s flight.

He took off, shed the rocket, traveled an arc that peaked 116 miles above the earth’s surface and then plopped down on a sunny patch of the Atlantic Ocean.

The whole thing took 15 minutes.

The USS Lake Champlain was waiting four miles away. A military helicopter picked him up seven minutes after he landed. He was 303 miles from where he started.

At the peak of his flight, Shepard was weightless. For about five minutes he took control of his Freedom 7 capsule. Using hydrogen peroxide thrusters he tested the pitch of the ship, the yaw and the roll.

But it was just a test. None of his steering was necessary.

“He didn’t have to lift a finger if he didn’t want to,” Tom Wolfe wrote in ‘The Right Stuff.’ “He was descending the arc, just like a mortar shell on the way down.”

Shepard’s path was already determined.

Katherine Johnson had mapped it out for him.

‘A pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender’

Alan Shepard traveled 303 miles, from point A to point B. The distance would take you about four and a half hours on the Interstate.

But the numbers don’t give you any sense of the journey.

Shepard left the Earth’s atmosphere, the first American to pierce the heavens, a journey utterly unique in American history.

Katherine Johnson traveled about 250 miles, from Church Street in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. It’s about a four hour drive. The journey took her 97 years.

It took her from the depths of Jim Crow to doing the mathematics that landed a man on the moon, and, eventually, to the White House, where she received the highest honor her nation can bestow upon a civilian.

Born and raised in segregated White Sulphur Springs, where a black woman couldn’t go to school past eighth grade, Johnson spent three decades working on some of the most advanced practical mathematics of her era.

For 33 years she worked for NASA (beginning before it was even called NASA), where she published 26 scientific papers, calculated Shepard’s trajectory to space and verified the path that John Glenn would travel as he orbited Earth three times.

She calculated the path of the most famous space flight in world history, the Apollo 11 trip to the moon, and was called in to consult on one of the most infamous flights in history, the aborted Apollo 13 trip to the moon.

Nearly three decades after she retired from NASA, Johnson was at the White House last month, at age 97. She sat next to Willie Mays. And the nation’s first black president gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“Katherine was a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science and reach for the stars,” President Barack Obama said.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden called her “one of the greatest minds ever to grace our agency or our country.

“Katherine’s legacy is a big part of the reason that my fellow astronauts and I were able to get to space,” Bolden, the first black man to run NASA, said. “It’s also a big part of the reason that today there is space for women and African-Americans in the leadership of our nation, including the White House.”

For her groundbreaking and heretofore largely unheralded work that allowed Americans to explore uncharted worlds and for a lifetime spent demonstrating how education and perseverance can help overcome injustice, Katherine G. Johnson is the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s 2015 West Virginian of the Year.

‘I’m going to have you ready’

Katherine Johnson was born two years before women earned the right to vote.

She was born 47 years before the Voting Rights Act gave blacks in the South, in practice, the right to vote.

When she was born in White Sulphur Springs in 1918, the county didn’t deem it necessary to offer black students schooling past eighth grade.

Not only did Johnson and her three older siblings attend segregated schools — as mandated by the West Virginia Constitution — but White Sulphur Springs schools were still segregated when Johnson’s three daughters attended, 20-odd years later. (The state Constitution continued to require segregated schooling, in vain, until 1994.)

From very early on, Johnson remembers the central theme of her youth.

“I had a very, very interesting childhood,” she told historian Wini Warren, for her 1999 book ‘Black Women Scientists in the United States.’ “But, oh my, education was the primary focus in our family.”

Johnson remembers one day when her mother, a teacher, had a colleague over to their home for a visit. Talking in front of Johnson, they adopted an old parental trick — spelling out words that were not appropriate for a small child to hear.

“And I said, you can stop spelling, because I can spell,” Johnson recalled in a series of videos produced by AOL. She was 4 years old.

It wasn’t just innate intelligence that set Johnson apart, it was confidence in herself.

Johnson and her sister scored about the same on IQ tests, she remembered.

“But she was not assertive. She was a shy person,” Johnson said in a video series for an African-American oral history project. “My hand stayed up in the air and the other children were not like this.”

Johnson’s father, Joshua, was a farmer, worked at The Greenbrier hotel and was a handyman in White Sulphur Springs.

When her oldest sister, Margaret, aged out of White Sulphur Springs’ segregated schools, her father sent her to Institute, where there was a black high school attached to what was then West Virginia State College.

The next year, the whole family went to Institute, while Johnson’s father, unable to find a job in the Kanawha Valley, remained in White Sulphur Springs to work.

“He was hellbent on getting his children educated,” Joylette Hylick, Katherine Johnson’s daughter, said of her grandfather.

While the four Johnson children were in high school, a span of eight years, the family (all except for Joshua) followed a routine. In September they would move up to Institute for the school year, and in June they would move back to White Sulphur Springs for the summer.

Johnson finished high school at 13 and started college at West Virginia State the next year.

At West Virginia State, she met a brand new professor, W.W. Schiefflin Claytor. Claytor was fresh out of the University of Michigan, where he had just completed his Ph.D. in math, only the third African-American in the country to do so.

“He was a musician, he played a vicious game of tennis and drove a sharp car. But he was first and foremost a mathematician,” Johnson recalled in the videos.

“He’d walk into the classroom, take a piece of chalk out of his pocket and walk immediately to the board. He knew just where the class had left off yesterday … I thought that was fantastic.”

Claytor saw something in Johnson. Soon enough, she had taken every math class the college had to offer. So Claytor added new courses, just for her.

Claytor told her she should be a research mathematician, at a time when career options for women were largely limited to teaching and nursing.

“I said, ‘what does a research mathematician do?’” she recalled.

“You do research in mathematics,” he said.

“Well, where do you get a job?”

“That’s going to be your problem,” he said. “But I’m going to have you ready.”

‘Well, tell them I’m coming’

Johnson graduated college in 1937, at age 18, with degrees in math and French. Her first job after graduation was teaching in a small grade school in Marion, Virginia. Before she went, her mother warned her: She was moving south. Racism was more open, more virulent.

“Remember, you’re going to Virginia,” her mother said.

“Well, tell them I’m coming,” Johnson responded.

She taught math, French and music in Marion. She met her husband, who taught science and coached the athletic teams.

In 1938, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state university must admit black students to graduate school, if the university offers courses that are not available at the state’s black colleges. The case was brought in Missouri, but a similar lawsuit was pending in West Virginia.

So the president of West Virginia University, his hand forced, called the president of West Virginia State and asked, essentially for his three best graduates.

And Johnson went to graduate school at WVU, one of three students, and the only woman, to integrate the state’s flagship institution. She was there for a summer, before she returned to teaching.

“Mom said it was not a friendly environment,” Hylick said.

She recalled a hostile professor who asked her mother what she was doing, studying graduate-level mathematics.

She told him she was going to be a research mathematician.

“Well, what are you going to do until you get that?” he replied, incredulous.

“She said, ‘do the same as you, teach school,’” Hylick recalled her mother saying. “Wasn’t anything he could say to that.

“People just don’t understand, my mother just never let anything like that stop her,” Hylick, who, herself, became a NASA mathematician and then worked for Lockheed Martin, said. “Because granddaddy told her that she was no better than anybody else, but she was no less than anybody else. And she believed it.”

Johnson’s hometown didn’t even attempt to desegregate its schools until 1954, after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case.

And then, only 25 West Virginia counties were even partially integrated. At White Sulphur Springs High School, 300 of the 440 white students went on strike to protest integration. They held hand-painted signs that read “No Negroes Wanted in Our Schools.”

The Greenbrier County Board of Education caved, and ordered students back to segregated schools.

By that time, Johnson was in another state, charting the path to space.

‘Is there a law against it?’

It was nearly 15 years after she graduated from West Virginia State before Katherine Johnson got a shot at being a research mathematician.

In the summer of 1951, Johnson was at a wedding in Newport News, Virginia, when her sister-in-law told her about a job opportunity.

The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which had more than tripled in size since the beginning of World War II, was looking for female mathematicians to work as “computers” at its Langley Research Center in nearby Hampton, Virginia.

More specifically, following an executive order 10 years before that forbid discrimination in defense industries, NACA was looking for black women to hire.

There wasn’t too much discussion between Johnson and her husband about moving.

“When Jimmy came home, I said, ‘we’re going to Newport News,’” Johnson recalled in a video. “He said, ‘We are? That’s great.’”

She started as a computer the next year.

The way it worked: An engineer would design some sort of experiment, perhaps on a wing that would be tested in a wind tunnel. As the airflow and pressure changed around the wing, there would be hundreds of different readings that needed to be recorded, without any sort of digital computer to log them.

“The computer would have a mathematical formula and she would put in the numbers, do the computations, get the results and plot it on a graph,” said Gail Langevin, a historical liaison for NASA.

But, for Johnson, doing the calculations wasn’t enough.

“She didn’t want to just do the work — she wanted to know the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’ and the ‘why nots,’” NASA wrote in a short biography of Johnson. “None of the other women had ever asked questions before, but by asking questions, Johnson began to stand out.”

When the engineers would hold design meetings, she asked if she could attend.

“Women never go to those,” she was told.

“Is there a law against it?” she asked. No, there was not.

“Well, let her go ahead,” they said.

Despite its willingness to hire black women, NACA was still in Virginia, where Jim Crow reigned.

There were separate bathrooms and cafeterias. The computers worked in two separate rooms, one for black women and one for white. And the engineers remained almost entirely white men.

But Johnson pushed her way in. She joined the Flight Research Division of NACA, which would become the foundation of the space program.

“The people there, most of them, were so intent on what they had to do and the fact that she could give answers and provide input,” Hylick said, “I think, what happened, intelligence and brilliance overruled segregation.”

‘If she says it’s right, it’s right’

In 1958, NACA became NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It was not exactly a well-established field.

“The whole idea of going into space was new and daring,” Johnson told the historian Wini Warren. “There were no textbooks, so we had to write them. We wrote the first textbook by hand, starting from scratch.”

Here’s an understatement: There’s a lot going on when you fire a person into outer space. Everything is moving. The capsule is traveling thousands of miles an hour. Earth is rotating on its axis. Earth is also simultaneously orbiting around the sun.

It’s rather critical to know where the astronaut is at any given time.

It sounds complicated, but Johnson will tell you it was no big deal.

“The early trajectory was a parabola, and it was easy to predict where it would be at any point,” she told NASA in 2008. “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.’”

She, along with a colleague, had published the theoretical foundation for her calculations nine months before Shepard’s flight.

That 34-page paper, “Determination of Azimuth Angle at burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position,” dense with complex equations, would prove even more important on subsequent flights.

Any angle is formed by connecting three points. An azimuth angle is formed by three specific points — the North Pole, an observer, and the point on earth directly below a heavenly object, like a star or a spacecraft.

Find a way to determine the azimuth angle for a moving spacecraft above the rotating earth, as Johnson’s paper did, and you’re well on your way to pinpointing where the spacecraft is at all times during its flight.

It was also the first paper ever published by Johnson’s division at NASA that had a woman’s name on it.

By the time John Glenn orbited the earth three times in 1962, NASA had digital computers that they used to calculate his trajectory. But the underlying formulas came from Johnson’s paper. And the computers were brand new. Nobody totally trusted them.

So they asked Johnson to double check the computer’s work.

“We computed the launch window, telling them the altitude, the speed, etc., etc., and if you meet those qualifications, within this area, ellipsoid, the trajectory will go as you planned,” Johnson said. “That’s the way it was. They just said, ‘if she says it’s right, it’s right,’ because the guys didn’t do the work. I did it.”

Seven years later, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, Johnson again calculated and verified the trajectory. This time it was more complicated. Not only was the earth still spinning, but the moon rotates around the earth and the spacecraft had to enter lunar orbit. While orbiting the moon, the lunar lander had to detach from the spacecraft and then, 22 hours later, reattach with the orbiting spacecraft.

Johnson watched the moon landing on TV, while at a sorority convention.

“When they went to the moon the first time, everybody was concerned about them getting there — we were concerned about them getting back,” she said. If the Eagle lunar module launched at the wrong time, or with the wrong force, if it didn’t hook back up with the spacecraft, there wasn’t another one coming.

“We did the calculations on how much error they would allow,” she said. “But if he missed it by more than X number of degrees or X feet per second, he was done for — no way he could get back.”

‘It’s totally unknown’

Johnson’s achievements, despite their significance, went largely unnoticed.

“No one knows that John Glenn wouldn’t fly unless Katherine Johnson checked the math,” Megan Smith, the White House chief technology officer, said in October. “It’s an amazing story, and it’s totally unknown.”

Johnson was never mentioned in the New York Times or the Washington Post before this year. She is nowhere to be found in ‘This New Ocean,’ NASA’s comprehensive internal history of Project Mercury.

Dan Giesy worked with Johnson at NASA for nine years, from 1977, until she retired in 1986. He remembers her teaching a lunchtime math class for some of the secretaries.

But, after years of working together every day, Giesy had no idea of Johnson’s historic contributions to NASA.

“She was very modest, she did today’s job and that wasn’t today’s job anymore,” he said. “It was well after she retired, and news items came up here and there, and I finally got on the Internet and found out, hey, this lady has a Wikipedia page, this is a big deal.”

Before 2015, the Charleston Gazette and Daily Mail wrote about her exactly once. The story appeared in the Gazette in 1977 to note that she had been honored by the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia. It did not mention NASA. It was five sentences long.

“We’re in a country that sometimes we have revisionist history, and if you go look at history books, lots of times there aren’t African-Americans in there,” said Leland Melvin, a former space shuttle astronaut. “It’s so easy to just have an omission and play up the people and things that you want to make prominent.”

During the Mercury and Apollo missions, that meant playing up the stereotype of the first seven astronauts.

“Back then, you were a test pilot with a crew cut,” Melvin said. “The original seven, Life Magazine with the wives and the Corvettes — there wasn’t room for anyone else in that dialogue.”

Not everybody ignored Johnson’s role.

On May 13, 1961, one week after Shepard’s flight and a half century before Johnson was honored at the White House, the following headline appeared in a major New York newspaper: “Negro Math Expert Helped Launch US Spaceman: Her Science Paper Is Key To Man in Orbit.”

The story was on page 1 of the New York Amsterdam News, then one of the leading black newspapers in the country.

“Down there at Langley Air Force Base is what is known as the National Aeronautics Space Agency (NASA),” the paper’s editor, James Hicks, wrote. “They are loud in their praise of a young West Virginia born Negro girl who has prepared a science paper that was not only a key document in the flight of Commander Shepard into outer space, but which will actually become ‘THE’ key document if and when we are able to put an astronaut into orbit.”

After Glenn’s space flight, Johnson was again on the front page of the Amsterdam News. “Almost anybody could have done it,” she told Hicks.

It was the 2000s before Johnson’s achievements began to get any sort of mainstream publicity.

For years, after her retirement, Johnson did education events, pushing kids to study science, technology, engineering and math.

In 2011, she did one in Virginia Beach with Melvin, now NASA’s associate administrator of education, and the singer and rapper Pharell Williams.

Melvin said she was more popular with the 1,000 area students than Pharell.

“She was telling young girls, ‘You can do it, you just got to roll up your sleeves and practice, just keep trying.’ They were just amazed at what she had done and couldn’t believe it,” Melvin said. “Just to have those young girls smiling and happy to know that there are Katherine Johnsons in the world.”

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5119 or follow @davidlgutman on Twitter.

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