What Matters; Katherine Johnson: NASA Pioneer and "Computer"
Good evening, I'm Kathy Lewis, a special treat for you tonight. A conversation with a pioneer at NASA Langley, an extraordinary woman whose math skills were so sharp, she was known as a human computer. Thirty minutes probably will be just enough to wet your appetite to learn more about Katherine Johnson. She worked at NASA Langley during the 50s, a woman and an African American busting through barriers and making history along the way. Here's a look at some of the highlights of her career. Before there was electronic computers to do all the calculations, the NACA used to hire women who had degrees in mathematics and it was thought that women would do it more accurately and pay more attention to the fine detail and men wouldn't have the patience to do that.
Katherine Johnson worked with the Space Orbital Mechanics Branch and they asked her to calculate, you know, certain times when the rocket would have to fire and when they would launch the spacecraft away from the rocket and where she thought the spacecraft would actually land so they'd be able to recover it. She always told us that my grandfather who only went to the sixth grade was the smartest man she ever saw and he could do numbers faster than you could bat your eye. So she started out, she said she used to count the plates and the silverware and so she always loved numbers and when she went to college the professor had her and everything he taught her she was just maxing and he said, I think you'd make a good math researcher and she said, well what's that? He said, well that's for you to find out. And so that was her dream from
the beginning she said, I want to be a research mathematician. We knew that she worked at Langley. It wasn't a discussion of what she did, we just knew it was math and we all did well in math. She would never brag on herself and most of our knowledge came from us seeing something and then coming home and said, Mom, this book says you did A, B and C and that's basically how we started getting our own history of our mom and what she did. When they first switched over to electronic computers, a lot of people because they were so new didn't trust the calculations that they produced. They would want a mathematician to check behind the computer until they gained some sort of credence here at the center. Presented to Catherine G. Johnson, this flag was carried aboard the fourth flight of Columbia in recognition of your personal contribution to what making
space available. The awards that she has received have been many but some of the most meaningful ones for her where the letters she would get from young schoolchildren. One little girl called a long distance and after talking to her and she said, are you still alive? Because when you talk about people that you want to read about or do a project on they're usually deceased but she's 92 and still moving and she said she never considered herself working. She loved what she did. She said it wasn't work and she has enjoyed her life truly. And very much alive Catherine Johnson is with us tonight in the studio. Nice to see you again Miss Johnson. Thank you for being here. Thank you. It is such a
pleasure to talk with you and there's so much ground we can cover in the course of the conversation. I think one of the most interesting things to note is this use of this word computer because I think we think of it as an electronic device. And yet before electronics there were people like you who were people who compute or computers. Will the data sheet that wide? And you would just have to figure out all the calculations across there. That's right. So I want to go back to your childhood because it seems like to me that's where a lot of this was. It became so ingrained and instilled in you. You said that your father was the smartest man you ever knew. Oh yes. Tell me about him. I thought he was the tallest, the handsomeest, the straightest. But he was just my father. And we had a hard textbook and they had very difficult word problems this long in there. You just read it to him and he could tell you the answer. So he obviously had a gift
for mathematics. And so what did he do for a living? He farmed. He logged. Then he eventually left and went to work at the hotel so we could go to school. He could look at a tree and tell you the number of board feed he could get out of it. Wow. And he was just a smart man. So when you say he eventually went to the hotels so that you could go to school. What do you mean? Well we were born in the country and when we got to school age we moved to town and he always said you will go to college. I didn't know what a college was. And he had only gone to sixth grade, right? Right. So when my sister spent one year on campus her first year in high school. He said well I can't do this eight times. So he
went down to the college and found a house and rented it. And we moved there every September and back home in June for eight years. Wow. So all the children could go to school. So everybody could go to high school and college. That's an amazing. He put all four of us through college. And that's an, you know, you just don't think about that for a moment. That's really a sounding thing. That was on his salary which based his basic salary was $100 a month. Oh my gosh. But he worked extra here and there. And your mother worked as well. No. She did not. She stayed home. She stayed at home. So as you think about that, I mean the thing that occurs to me about that story is here's somebody who decided that education was important. In fact, so important that he was going to orient your whole family life and his whole work life. That's right. To achieve that. That's an amazing thing.
So when you went to college, did you go to school with your siblings then? Were you all of us when my sister, my brother, then my, I was next to my brother was a grade below me because I skipped a couple of grades. And as a result, I was ahead of the boys. So you actually graduated, how old were you when you graduated from college? 18. 18. So you, everybody knew you had a big old brain on you by that time. I didn't know it. But you didn't know it. Yeah. And so I wonder if you talk about where you discovered this love for math? I mean, clearly your father probably inspired some of that. But did college give you some of that as well? I was, it wasn't always my family subject because you see I majored in French. But I could easily have majored in English and mad. And when I went to college, you didn't have to choose your major, your first semester. I was walking across
the campus and I met the math, a math teacher who said, I'm coming back to teach math this year. And if you are not in my class, I will come and find you. Wow. So I didn't start majoring in math through my second, the second semester of my sophomore year. And so you graduate from high school at 18. How is it then that you got to NASA? Because you had this professor who said, I think you're going to make a great research mathematician. So you don't even know what that meant. He taught me every course that the college offered, not a couple extra. In one of those, I was the only student. He was so great. He would walk into the classroom and reach in his pocket and take out a piece of chalk and go immediately to the black body and knew exactly where you were and what was next. He only referred to the textbook to giving assignment. He was great. Dr. W. W. L. Sheffield and Clayton.
So you graduate from high school at 14, college at 18. You have this marvelous professor who says you will make a great research mathematician. What's the path after that to the Gets You NASA? Well, I taught in Marion, Virginia. And then I taught in Oregon Town, West Virginia. And the meantime, I had gotten married. So I stopped teaching and raised a family. And it wasn't until the 1940s that I went back to teaching because my husband became ill. I completed that year for him. And then we moved to another school in Bluefield, Virginia. And we both taught there until 1952 when I came to Newport News, Virginia. That was an accident too. Margaret said, what you're going to do when you go home? I said nothing special.
He said, come go home with us. My husband will get you a job. And he got two jobs. So I applied for Langley. But they had hired them. They're hiring for the year. So I had to wait for a whole year to go to Langley. So I went to Langley in June of 1953. In the meantime, I substituted in Huntington High School. And I worked with the USO. And I guess maybe that's all I did until I got here. That's enough. So if we think about what the world was like in 1953, of course, it was still very segregated at that point. Yes. I didn't feel the segregation at NASA because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it. And it was important to you to do your job and play bridge at lunch.
And I didn't feel any segregated. I didn't feel the singing. It was there, but I didn't make sure it did not affect me. I wonder about that. And maybe this is a factor of having lived in a world that was a certain way. And that's just the way it was. But I think it's really hard for people who didn't come up in that era who weren't consciously aware in that era to understand what that was like. Well, as you say, you were brought up in it. That's the way it was conducted. And you lived with it. So you started working at NASA Langley. And you're doing these, just astounding calculations for incredibly important missions that NASA was working on at the time. We started. I started out working on airplanes because when I went there, that's what it was. That's
actually the advisory committee for aeronautics. When the space program came along, I just happened to be working with guys and then they kept briefing someone. I asked permission to go. And they said, well, the girls don't usually go. And I said, well, is there a law? They said, no, I said, well, so then my boss let it go. And I began attending the briefings. You're already doing the work, but you didn't know exactly what was. And gradually I did more. And they do something that I knew more about the geometry of the program, all about the mapping to the right here and there. And so it was a very easy transition. And you really were very familiar, knew very well. Many of these incredibly well-known people connected to NASA, many people whose names we would know. I'm thinking about John Glenn
in particular. He says, well, we didn't get to meet the astronauts. They were as excited as we were. And we just looked at them. But you know, it's so interesting because we talk about electronic computers. And I think in this generation, we think of computers as being electronic devices. But back then, and now we talk about human error, we tend more to trust the electronic answer than we do the human answer. But back then, it sounds like they really trusted the human answer more. They were more suspicious of the electronic answer. Yes, in particular, when John Glenn was to be the first astronaut to go up into the atmosphere and come back. And they wanted him to come back in a special place. And that was what I did. I computed his trajectory. And from then on, anytime they were going to compute trajectories, they were given mostly all of them to my branch. And I did most
of the work on those by hand. But when he got ready, he said, call her. And if she says the computer's right, I'll take it. That's amazing. That was amazing that he did call in to say that the first time he made a trip into the atmosphere. And he wanted to arrive at his given place. He wanted me to check it out and be sure that they could have a break. Did you ever have a moment where the enormity of that hits you? I mean, here you are making calculations. When you said he wants to arrive at a certain place, I thought, yeah, he'd probably just like to arrive anywhere, right? I mean, that's a piece of it too. The enormity of that must have been quite interesting. It was an assignment. And it was simple to you. You had to consider the rotation of the earth. And so equally important of them going to the moon had to know the location of the moon. And where it was when you took off it, where it was when you got there,
see the moon is going that way and you're going, you're going this way because you want to end this thing to the moon in a certain way. It was intricate, but it was possible. It said, then at night, you're doing this amazing work by day. And then at night, you're coming home and your mom and grandma and all the rest of it. I mean, it was just must have been amazing. And my husband became ill during that period too. So you had to deal with that as well. But that as well. Sure. You know, I wonder, you say, I know that your children in the video piece that we saw, which Lisa Godly did a great job of producing, I think it was your daughter who said they were all good at math too. I mean, your father was good at math. You're a genius at math, your children. Is this a genetic thing? It could have been my mother had been a teacher until she married and moved into the country. I was always around people who were learning something I liked to learn. I think very often
that's missing with kids today that don't want to learn. What do you think is the reason for that? What do we do about that? I don't know other than constantly say to them, you need to learn how to learn. And then you want to want to know. So I say that to students everywhere. You learn if you want to. So you've got to want to learn. You know, they're doing all this research now on the differences between boys, brains, and girls, brains. And they say that girls and boys can do the same kinds of math. It's just that sometimes girls brain development lags a little bit in middle school. They wind up catching up. And as a consequence, they don't necessarily take the classes because they're not as confident that boys take at that time. I wonder what you think about that kind of research and whether there are gender differences in how
we deal with math. I think the difference is in the desire to learn. Girls, I've found myself very inquisitive. I wanted to know what was going on and why. About whatever was subject at the time. It was important to me to learn why. Girls, some of them are reluctant to ask questions. They feel that they're just being curious. But if you want to know, you ask a question. There's no such thing as a dumb question. It's dumb if you don't ask, if you don't ask it. But girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing. Sometimes they have more imagination than men. I thought that was interesting too that the story in it NASA said the feeling at the time was that women
would be more accurate than men. I thought that was interesting. Well, men don't pay attention to small things. They're not interested in the fact. In the how you do it, just give me the answer. I find that true about some teachers who teach answers. I never have taught answers. I teach you what the problem is, how to attack it. If you attack it properly, you will get the answer. Which is, in some respects, you know, we've had this conversation about standards of learning tests and the sort of the teaching to the test and the big concerns the teachers have about this. Well, the attitude of my daughter who was one of them who was teaching rest said that they taught only to the test. She said, so there's a lot of material out there that's not being taught. Because it's not on the test. Well,
that's unfair to the student. It's unfair to the teacher. That they are being taught that way. So I think it's important that you learn the background of what you're working on and how to do it. And you get the right answer. If you don't get it the first time, you'll get it the second time. But you don't arrive at it by teaching answers. So I know you still go into schools and talk to young people from time to time. You said we're surprised you were still alive. Yeah. And the pictures of the textbook, you're supposed to be there. That's so funny. So do you still watch the development of the space program? And what do you think about where we are right now with that? Well, I don't watch this much as I have done in the past. I'm very proud of what they're doing and how they're doing it. And why? You see, if you lose your curiosity, then you stop learning.
You must, and the scientists, they said, well, what good is it to go to space? Well, what good is it to do you to stay home? Great question. So the important thing is that it's out there. We want to know all about it. We can. We can. It's a great point. Captain Johnson, I want to thank you so much for being with us today. I always enjoy talking with you. I wish we had another hour. Every time I talk with you, I learn a little bit more. I like that about you. Thank you very much for asking me. It's a pleasure. Thank you for being here. And I'll be back in just a moment with a final thought. You know, when John Glenn asks you to check the computer's math, just to be sure it's
right, you know you have a head for numbers. It's a gift for Katherine Johnson, and I can't help but wonder whether she would have discovered that gift and shared it with a space program if she hadn't had parents who insisted on getting her the best education that could be had. So how many Katherine Johnson's are out there this year in 2011 with undiscovered gifts that we can nurture and leverage? Well, if their parents are undocumented immigrants, we may never know. Children brought to the United States by their parents through no fault or intention of their own can go to school through 12th grade here, but as graduation looms, so do some very unpleasant realities. Federal law prohibits them from getting in-state tuition, even though they may have lived in the state most of their lives, and now comes a bill in the Virginia General Assembly from Delegate Christopher Peace that would make Virginia the fourth state that prohibits undocumented students from even entering Virginia colleges at all. Right now, colleges set their own admission policies, and Federal law prohibits undocumented students from getting federal financial aid. Thus begins the tight
rope walk for students who grown up in this country, but are not legally present. Without access to college, these students face a stark future. Return to a country they don't know where there may no longer be any family, or live in the shadows like the parents do. Taking low paying jobs or being lured by the promise of riches in criminal enterprise. Without documents, it's a terrible choice. If you think it's as easy as going down to immigration and stepping your foot on that pathway to citizenship, think again. These students don't want to expose their parents, but they do want an education and the ability to contribute to this country that they call home in the same way any American citizen does. The Dream Act would have granted conditional permanent residency to undocumented immigrants who graduate from U.S. high schools, are of good moral character, arrived here as minors, and have been in the country continuously and illegally for at least five years before the bill becomes law. In exchange, these immigrants would have been required to complete two years of military service, or two years at a four-year institution of higher learning. The Dream Act
was blocked by Senate filibuster in December, but no amount of legislative gymnastics will stop this tragedy and the making. Staring us in the face is the fact that there are 65,000 students in this country graduating from high school with good grades, extracurriculars and community service, and no hope of going any further. And what if among them is the next Katherine Johnson? To watch this program or any of our past broadcasts, be sure to visit our website. That's what matters.tv and that's where you'll find any number of ways to get in touch with us. You can also join us on Facebook as well. And on the radio, I hope you'll join us for more local talk. That's here say weekdays on 89.5 FM noon to 1. And we'll be glad to take your calls at that time as well. Thanks for watching. I'm Kathy Lewis. We'll see you next time for another look at what matters.
- What Matters
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- WHRO (Television station : Norfolk, Va.)
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- WHRO (Norfolk, Virginia)
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- Episode Description
- This week, tune in for an incredible conversation with a NASA Langley pioneer. We'll meet the extraordinary woman whose math skills were so sharp, she was known as the "human computer." Katherine Johnson worked at NASA Langley in Hampton during the 1950's - a woman and an African-American who broke through barriers and made history along the way.
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Executive Producer: Lewis, Cathy
Host: Lewis, Cathy
Interviewee: Johnson, Katherine
Producing Organization: WHRO (Television station : Norfolk, Va.)
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Identifier: WM350 (WHRO)
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Identifier: cpb-aacip-535-7940r9nd42.mov.mp4 (mediainfo)
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- Chicago: “What Matters; Katherine Johnson: NASA Pioneer and "Computer",” WHRO, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 28, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-535-7940r9nd42.
- MLA: “What Matters; Katherine Johnson: NASA Pioneer and "Computer".” WHRO, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 28, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-535-7940r9nd42>.
- APA: What Matters; Katherine Johnson: NASA Pioneer and "Computer". Boston, MA: WHRO, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-535-7940r9nd42