The following interview is a creative work written by David Kimball. This body of work is a fictional Q&A interview with NASA Mathematician, Katherine Johnson. The answers are based off research. 45 Magazine did not interview Katherine Johnson.
Katherine Johnson Goble – NASA’s Human Computer
Reporter: Katherine, where should I start? In school, you excelled in math so much that by 13 you were already attending classes on a college campus. Would you say that was when you realized your career would be in space flight engineering?
Katherine: No. After I graduated from West Virginia State College when only 19 years old in 1937, I taught school at a black public school in Virginia. Two years later the President of West Virginia University asked me and two men to be the first three blacks to attend the graduate school there. It was a great honor for to be selected, but after the first session, I left the graduate program to raise a family with my husband. When my three daughters got older, I went back to teaching in a public school.
It wasn’t until I was 34 years old that I took a job with the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) – which later became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). I was fortunate to be able to work with Dorothy Vaughan – an amazing black woman who was in charge of a group of black “computer women”. We were called “computer women” because we were responsible for manually performing calculations and figuring out mathematical problems pertaining to flights – first airplanes and then space flights.
Reporter: What was it like working as a “human computer” with Dorothy Vaughan?
Katherine: It was wonderful! She, unfortunately, had to do a lot of ground-breaking for the rest of us who were working for her. She was one of the few women hired by NACA and the first black woman. In the 1940’s during the World War II, most of the men were fighting in the war so the Department of Defense opened the doors to women and even black women in order to get the best talent working on aeronautical problems. Dorothy was definitely one of the best.
Dorothy had a lot of trials and tribulations working there. For instance, since they still had segregated bathrooms, she would have to put on her coat and walk half mile just to go to the nearest “colored bathroom”. It used to take her 40 minutes round trip just to pee. She became the acting supervisor for about a year before she was finally given the official title – thus becoming the first black supervisor in NACA.
During her time, all the mathematical analyses were done by hand using slide rules. It wasn’t until about 9 years after I started there that real IBM computers came into use. It was Dorothy who took it upon herself to learn the FORTRAN programming language and then taught all of us in her department. That allowed us to stay employed when NASA converted all these computational problems to computers. If it hadn’t been for Dorothy, we all would have been out of a job.
Reporter: So it was really you and Dorothy who were responsible for crunching all those numbers for the space flights?
Katherine: Oh no. We were an entire team. Every black woman working there was great. She had to be in order to work for NACA. One great black woman who comes to mind was Mary Jackson. She started working at NACA two years before me. She wanted to become an engineer which was unheard of for a woman back then. But to be an engineer, she needed to take an advanced graduate level math courses from the University of Virginia. However, the local school was segregated. So that she had to go to the court to get a special permission to take the evening classes there. After she did this, she became the first black female engineer in NASA.
Reporter: What would you say was the most thrilling moment in your career?
Katherine: My most intense moment was probably when John Glenn was to become the first astronaut to circle the earth multiple times. We had recently installed the IBM computers and they were still not performing consistently like they should have. Shortly before John Glenn was to take off, the IBM reports showed a discrepancy and the people in charge of the launch weren’t sure what to do. The discrepancy was critical because it was predicting exactly where and when his space capsule was to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and if it was off, the capsule could either burn up in the earth’s atmosphere, or bounce back out into space unable to re-enter. When John Glen found out about this problem with the IBM reports, he requested that I was to re-do the complex equations myself by hand to determine if they should go ahead with the launch or not. I had to perform a lot of complex equations and formulas in a short amount of time knowing that the success of this launch, and even his life, rested on my shoulders. Thankfully, I was able to confirm the right set of numbers, and they proved to be true.
However, my most exciting moment was when I was told that I was to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. This Medal recognizes those people who have made an especially meritorious contribution to the national interest of the United States.
The work that all of us black “human computers” did to advance the United States in the Space Race against the Russians was significant not only for blacks, but for all of us Americans.