“I just did my job. Nasa had a problem and I had the solution.” It is with these humble phrases that Katherine Johnson recently summarized her career at the Washington Post . But whatever she says, at 98, this native of Virginia, born in 1918, has a CV more than impressive.
Katherine Johnson obtained her bachelor’s degree at the age of 14, before joining the State University of West Virginia for a mathematics specialization one year later. She graduated from mathematics and French with congratulations in 1937, only 18 years. Figures that give the turn but not to this lover of equations. They even propelled her to the front of the stage at a time when a woman, black in addition, had no place.
Small and big story
After her studies, Katherine Johnson began a teaching career, which she quickly abandoned to found a family with her husband, James Goble. Together they have three daughters – Constance, Joylette and Katherine. But James Goble died of brain cancer in 1956. The woman of science must then overcome her mourning as well as her status as a single mother.
The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) “decided to recruit women during the Second World War, when the men who went to the front began to run out,” says Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book The Figures of the Shadow ( 1), which inspired the film of the same name. (2) Beginning in 1943, the Nasa ancestor published an advertisement in the city’s black newspaper to recruit math teachers in public schools. ‘In 1980 they will be 80 to work there.’ Among them, Katherine Johnson from 1953.
Katherine Johnson, a figure in the shadows
Passion for numbers
Because of the segregationist laws known as Jim Crow Laws, differentiating American citizens according to their skin color in the public space, Katherine Johnson and her colleagues work segregated in a building reserved for them. “I did not have time for that,” said Katherine Johnson in an interview kept in the NASA archives in 2008. “My father always told us:” You are also Gifted as anyone in this city, but you are no better. “This explains why I have no feeling of inferiority, and that I have never had.
“A computer in skirt”
A wisdom that allows her to work as a “computer skirt”, as she nicknamed herself, a post consisting of calculating data from black boxes of aircraft and other mathematical work. But in the middle of the Cold War, NASA needs specialists in analytical geometry to get ahead of the Russians in the conquest of space. One of the few to master the discipline is Katherine Johnson. His ability to handle the numbers exceeds the understanding and allows him to assert himself. She does not hesitate to push the barriers even further as she manages to attend meetings forbidden to women.
In 1959, Katherine Johnson managed to make the calculations for the first suborbital launch of Alan Shepard. Then in 1962, John Glenn, the first US astronaut to go around the Earth, asked before his first orbital flight that she checked herself for the last time the calculations of her trajectory. Subsequently, his gift for mathematics led him to determine the trajectory of Apollo 11 flight to the Moon in July 1969, including the descent of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar soil.
Rewarded by Barack Obama
In November 2015, Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honor in the United States.And last month, at the 89th Academy Awards , she came on stage to announce the award for best documentary, accompanied by actresses Taraji P. Henson (who portrayed her onscreen), Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe , Heroines of the film Theodore Melfi. A highlight, thirty-two years after his retirement from Nasa.