The Sound of Science - 'Katherine Johnson'

Feb 28, 2020

Joe: Welcome to the Sound of Science on WNIJ. I’m Joe from NIU’s Center of Black Studies, and I’m here with Gaylen.

Gaylen: The 20’s and 30’s were a truly challenging time for outstanding women of color. But if there is one exemplary mathematician who overcame it all, it’s Katherine Johnson. 

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Joe: She was one of three black students – and the only woman – to be offered a spot at West Virginia University when the state decided to quietly integrate its graduate schools in 1939, and her roles within NASA were crucial in getting the first men to the moon. When asked what she thought was her most important contribution to the space program , Mrs. Johnson said the calculations that helped synch the Apollo Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module. 

Gaylen: Her efforts in mathematical analysis within aerospace sciences helped save lives! The NACA – NASA’s predecessor – put her to work analyzing flight test data and investigating crashes caused by air turbulence. 

Joe: Alan Shepard was the first American to travel in space during NASA’s Freedom 7 mission; however, he wouldn’t have been there without Katherine Johnson. She coauthored a report essentially giving a how-to guide on sending a rocket up and calculating where it would land. This was the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had received credit as an author.

Gaylen: In 1960, NASA began to use computers to help calculate trajectories and analyze flight data. However, like all new technologies, it wasn’t entirely trusted. Astronaut John Glenn famously told the engineers to go get Johnson and have her run the numbers by hand to make sure the computer was correct. Only if she said it was okay would he continue the Friendship 7 mission to become the first American to orbit the globe. It  was quite controversial to rely on the opinions and analysis from a black woman, especially over white men with computers.

Joe: On February 24, 2020, Katherine Johnson passed at the age of 101. 

Gaylen: Thank you for joining us during Black History Month on the Sound of Science on WNIJ.

Joe: Where you learn something new everyday.