Katherine Johnson was a STEM trendsetter before there was STEM
Ms. Johnson, now 97, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday for her groundbreaking contributions to NASA in an era when few African-Americans were working in the field, let alone African-American women.
Katherine Johnson can recall watching the Apollo 11 crew return to Earth after becoming the first men on the moon in 1969. While most of the country had moved on to celebrating a major Space Race victory, Ms. Johnson was nervously thinking of pilot Michael Collins.
"If he missed it by a degree, he doesn't get into orbit," the 97-year-old NASA scientist explains in a Makers interview. "I was going, Boy, I hope he got that right!" She laughs.
"And I was sitting there hoping I am right too."
Johnson, a black mathematician from West Virginia, had calculated the spacecraft's trajectory, just one milestone in a 33-year NASA career where her skills shaped every major American space program from 1952 to 1986. On Tuesday, she is to be honored as one of President Obama's 2015 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Johnson's contributions are older than NASA itself: she came aboard the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), NASA's predecessor, when jobs set aside for black candidates were opened to women in 1953. At the time, she was working as a teacher for $100 per month, roughly $900 in today's dollars.
Johnson was hired as a research mathematician, but found that NACA's male employees "just wanted somebody to do all the little stuff while they did the thinking," she tells Makers, grinning as she recalls an era when "computers" were people, not machines.
But that first step in the door was already a huge one for a young woman who had to leave her hometown, White Sulphur Springs, to find a high school accepting black students, followed by college at the historically black West Virginia State University, from which she graduated summa cum laude at age 18 with degrees in French and mathematics.
At WVSU, Johnson's math talent stood out so much that one mentor, Professor W.W. Schiefflin Claytor — only the third African-American to earn a Ph.D. in math — created a class just for her, studying the analytic geometry of space. But that wasn't enough to open up many post-college opportunities for a young black woman in the 1940s, two decades before President Kennedy's push to integrate NASA, and Johnson wound up as a teacher and homemaker until her NACA hire.
At first, the woman who would later win the National Technical Association's Mathematician of the Year award and three of NASA's own Special Achievement Awards was assigned to an all-female unit doing calculations for male engineers. But Johnson was curious about the agency's space projects.
"Oh, they felt terrible that here we sat and the Russians had a vehicle riding around looking down on you," she says of Sputnik.
Supervisors rebuffed her initial request to sit in on higher-level meetings, saying women never attended, but when she asked "Is there a law against it?" they relented — and after meeting her, the all-male space research branch refused to let her go. Plotting spacecraft trajectories became her specialty, so much so that, when the calculations shifted to computers ahead of John Glenn's 1962 orbit, he demanded that Johnson double-check the computer's numbers before he boarded.
"We just started from what we knew," she tells the Charleston Gazette-Mail of working before there were space textbooks (and later writing her own).
Since then, NASA has explored multiple paths to bring more women and minorities into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. The agency has given grants to colleges training underrepresented STEM students, launched a site sharing NASA employees' experiences as women in the field to inspire the next generation, and, in 2013, introduced the first astronaut group made up of equal numbers men and women. The organization has sent 534 people to space, of whom just 57 were female and 14 African-American.
NASA also hopes to strengthen women's participation through the Datanauts program, which aims to communicate and apply its open data in innovative ways. The Datanauts' first class of researchers is entirely female.
"The lesson we wanted to pass on is that the future simply doesn’t exist until we create it," Beth Beck, NASA's Open Innovation program manager, told Fast Company.
But nationwide, efforts to attract and retain women and minorities in science and engineering are struggling. Women make up around a quarter of the engineering workforce, unchanged since 2001, while African-Americans and Latinos make up 12 percent combined.
Part of the problem is access — not entirely different from Johnson's dilemma in 1932. Resource-poor schools, which are disproportionately attended by minority children, may not be able to offer as many advanced math and science courses, such as Advanced Placement classes.
That makes role models like Johnson, whom the President called "a pioneer in American space history," all the more important.
Other recipients of the 2015 Presidential Medals of Freedom include filmmaker Steven Spielberg, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and, posthumously, Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first black woman elected to Congress.
"These men and women have enriched our lives and helped define our shared experiences as Americans," Obama said in a released statement.
Johnson likes math's constancy, its yes-or-no accuracy. "Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering and technology," she told NASA in 2013.
But NASA, on the other hand, has changed a lot. "NASA would not be what it is if not for you, Mrs. Johnson," the agency wrote in an online tribute.