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Katherine Johnson Hidden Figures Mathematician

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Hidden Figure Katherine Johnson

KATHERINE JOHNSON – In 1958, when the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Katherine Johnson was the 'computer' who did the math.  "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.  Inasmuch as I was in at the beginning, I was one of those lucky people." As a student, Katherine skipped through grades to graduate from high school at age 14, and from college at 18.  - more below -

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Her skills at mathematics drew the attention of a young professor, W.W. Schiefflin Claytor who said; 'You'd make a good research mathematician and I'm going to see that you're prepared.’ 

Katherine's work at NASA's Langley Research Center spanned from 1953 to 1986 and included calculating the trajectory of the early space launches.  Since Katherine was no stranger to geometry, it was only natural that she calculate America's first trajectory into space in 1961, with astronaut Alan Shepherd.
 
She stated; "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 and where you want it to land, and I'll do the math backwards and tell you when to take off.  That was my forte."

Johnson continued: "More flights became more complicated, with more variables involving place and rotation of Earth and the moon for orbiting. By the time John Glenn was to go up to orbit the Earth, NASA had gone to computers. You could do much more, much faster on computer. But when they went to computers, they called over and said, 'tell her to check and see if the computer trajectory they had calculated was correct.'  So I checked it and it was correct."

 In 1969, while at a sorority meeting in the Pocono Mountains, Katherine Johnson gathered with others around a small television set to see Neil Armstrong land and take first steps on the moon.

Katherine shared; "There was some marveling, but not much. It all seemed routine to people by then. But I was an extremely nervous 'computer.'  I had done the calculations and knew they were correct, but just like driving a car, anything could happen.  I didn't want anything to happen - and it didn't."

After retirement Katherine stayed involved in math by tutoring youngsters.

 

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Hidden Figure Katherine Johnson