Katherine Johnson led African American efforts in space travel


Hello Again,

I have always enjoyed history. Today’s young folks don’t seem to be too interested in studying history. They are more interested in the here and now and not how we got here.

The history of this country is an unfinished tapestry woven through time by people from all walks of life with incredible stories.

It has been my privilege to contribute to FSA Andy during Black History Month for many years now, and I will be forever grateful for having had this opportunity.

When the movie, Hidden Figures, came out I had no idea what it was about but when a friend told me I had to look at the history behind this story.

Katherine Johnson was born Aug. 26, 1918, and raised in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and while she is the main character in the movie, the story is much greater.

By the age of 13 she was attending high school on the historically black campus of West Virginia State College.

When 18, she enrolled in the college itself, and made quick work of the schools math curriculum. She graduated with highest honors in 1937, and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia.

Black students

In 1939, West Virginia quietly decided to integrate its graduate schools, and it was then that West Virginia State’s president, Dr. John W Davis, selected Johnson and two male students as the first black students to be offered spots at the state’s flagship school, West Virginia University.

Johnson left her job and enrolled in the graduate math program. At the end of her first session, she decided to leave school to start a family with her husband.

She returned to teaching when her three daughters got older, but it was not until 1952 that a relative told her about positions opening at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA) Langley laboratory, headed by fellow West Virginian Dorothy Vaughan.

Johnson and her husband decided to move the family to Newport News, to pursue the opportunity, and she began work at Langley in 1953. After just two weeks on the job, Director Vaughan assigned Johnson to a project in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division and her position soon became permanent.

The next four years would be spent analyzing data from flight tests and investigating the crash of a plane caused by wake turbulence.

The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 would change history and Johnson’s future. In 1957, she had provided some of the math for the 1958 document Notes on Space Technology, a compendium of a series of 1958 lectures given by engineers in the Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division.

Engineers from those groups formed the core of the Space Task Force Group, the NACA’s first official foray into space travel. Johnson, who had worked with many of them since coming to Langley, came along with the program as NACA became NASA later that year.

Space flight

She did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight. In 1960, she and engineer Ted Skopinski coauthored Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position, a report laying out the equations describing an orbital spaceflight in which the landing position of the spacecraft is specified.

This was the first time a woman had received credit as an author of a research report. In 1962, in preparation for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Johnson Johnson was called upon to do the work she would become most known for.

The complexity of the orbital flight required the construction of a worldwide communications network linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, D.C., Cape Canaveral, and Bermuda.

The computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the space capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission from liftoff to splashdown but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines which were prone to hiccups and blackouts.

As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked the engineers to “get the girl” Johnson Johnson to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine.

“If she says they’re good,” Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.”

Turning point

Of course, Glenn’s mission was a success and marked the turning point in the competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in space.

When asked what her greatest contribution to space exploration was Johnson talks about the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module.

She also worked on the Space Shuttle and Earth Resources Satellite and authored or coauthored 26 research reports. Johnson retired in 1986, after thirty-three years at Langley.

Presidential honor

In 2015, at the age of 97, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Here at FSA, the time seems to be flying by so we want to remind you of another important deadline fast approaching. For vegetable producers, many spring planted NAP crops have a sales closing date of Feb. 28.

This includes soybeans for any county that does not have crop insurance coverage for soybeans. As always contact your local FSA office for details.

That’s all for now,

FSA Andy


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