Human Computer Katherine Johnson Passes On at 101 — Dare to Know

BLACK WOMEN WORKED AS NASA HUMAN COMPUTERS

I’m bringing up Hidden Figures because human computer Katherine Johnson, the real-life woman played by Taraji P. Henson in that film, has just passed on at 101. She was one of a few hundred women who worked at the NASA Langley Research Center as human computers.

“IF SHE SAYS THE NUMBERS ARE GOOD, I’M READY TO GO.”

“If she says the numbers are good, I’m ready to go,” he explained. People would calmly bet their lives on her way with numbers, even though one human error could get them killed.

SHE WAS LUCKY TO MAKE IT PAST GRADE SIX

Fortunately for all of us, her parents saw her potential with numbers from an early age. They would watch her keep trying to count all the stars in the sky.

GRADUATED SUMMA CUM LAUDE FROM WEST VIRGINIA STATE

She was one of the first three black students handpicked in 1939 to do graduate work at West Virginia University. By that point, she was married and she left her studies when she was expecting her first child.

REMEMBERED GEOMETRY THE MALE STAFF HAD FORGOTTEN

She could still remember most of her geometry whereas most of the male staff with post-graduate degrees had forgotten theirs. That made her the star of her team and she ended up spending her whole career in Flight Research.

DID ALL THE CALCULATIONS BY HAND USING A PENCIL

They didn’t have electronic computers. The human computers did all of the calculations by hand using a pencil, graph paper, slide rules and noisy mechanical adding machines. The work was so secret that sometimes they would only realize what they’d really been doing from reading press reports later on.

HAND CALCULATED THE TRAJECTORIES FOR APOLLO 11

She always thought the moon landing was her best accomplishment. Later in her career, Katherine Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS), now called Landsat.

“I’M AS GOOD AS ANYBODY, BUT NO BETTER”

Nobody heard much about Katherine Johnson or her peers during her career or for most of her retirement years. She wasn’t hiding, though.

AWARDED THE PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM

In his remarks, the president said, “Katherine Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.” Interest in the history behind NASA’s team of human computers started building.

COMPUTER SCIENCE BUILDING AT LANGLEY NAMED FOR HER

Also in 2017, NASA decided to name its new computer science building at Langley the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. Things have turned around for her and her unsung cohorts after all those years in the background.

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David Morton Rintoul

David Morton Rintoul

I write for those who find meaning in discoveries about space, living things, and humanity. I also write content marketing stories for select B2B clients.