The ‘Human Computer’ Behind the Moon Landing Was a Black Woman

In an age of racism and sexism, Katherine Johnson broke both barriers at NASA.

She calculated the trajectory of man’s first trip to the moon, and was such an accurate mathematician that John Glenn asked her to double-check NASA’s computers. To top it off, she did it all as a black woman in the 1950s and ’60s, when women at NASA were not even invited to meetings.

And you’ve probably never heard of her.

Meet Katherine Johnson, the African-American woman who earned the nickname “the human computer” at NASA during its space race golden age.

An upcoming movie called Hidden Figures will celebrate her life and those of her black female colleagues, all of whom did important work against unbelievable odds but whose stories have gone largely unknown. The movie, set to come out in January 2017, will feature Taraji P. Henson as Johnson and music by Pharrell Williams.

In interviews, Johnson, now 97, remembers how her brilliant calculations—which she did largely by hand—forced NASA to accept her.

“I just happened to be working with guys,” she said, “and when they had briefings I asked permission to go. They said, ‘The girls don’t usually go.’ I said, ‘Is there a law?’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then my boss said, ‘Let her go.’”

So she went. And, with her help, NASA went to the moon.

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A Native Texan who adores baby kittens, loves horses, rodeos, pomegranates, & collect Eagles. Enjoys politics, games shows, & dancing to all types of music. Loves discussing and learning about different cultures. A Phi Theta Kappa lifetime member with a passion for Social & Civil Justice.
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25 Responses to The ‘Human Computer’ Behind the Moon Landing Was a Black Woman

  1. Thanks for this. Nice to know the backstory before I see it

  2. A White man may have been the first to walk on the moon but, Katherine Johnson, a Black mathematician, got him there. A math genius, Johnson entered West Virginia State University, a Historically Black College, at age 15. While there, professors at the campus competed to have the brilliant young woman in their classes. Dr. William W. Schiefflin Claytor, who earned his Bachelors and Masters in Mathematics at Howard University, told the bright young woman that she would make a great Research Mathematician, and set about teaching her all that he knew. She took every Math class that the university offered, and her young professor and mentor even created an Analytic Geometry class, specifically for her, that she alone took. It all paid off. She arrived at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA, after the organization had begun looking for women to work as “computers.” At this time, electronic computing was still in its early stages and human minds were still called on to verify the accuracy of the computations. Given that this was still a time of segregation, Johnson worked in the division that was made up entirely of Black woman mathematicians whose supervisor was also a Black woman. Unlike their White counterparts, they all had college degrees. It was common for the women to do the computations while the men worked on the engineering side, learned about the space program and went to special briefings. Johnson wanted to know what was happening with the burgeoning space program and asked to attend one of the briefings. She was told that women did not go, but inquired whether this was based on a law. It was not, and so she was given permission to go. She stood out in briefings, because of her insightful questioning and accurate work, and while doing research for the program, they came to rely upon her mathematical authority. When it was time for the first flight into space to happen, it was her computations that made it possible. She did all this while being a young wife and a mother, but she balanced it all. She simply was doing the work that intrigued and motivated her. She remains an inspiration to many at the age of 96.

  3. Look you give when he walks away and you know he’s fine….

    Jackson checking John Glenn out as he walks away

    Johnson: How can you possibly be ogling these white men?
    Jackson: It’s equal rights. I have the right to see fine in every color

    Look you give when he walks away and you know he's fine

  4. President Obama bestowed the Medal of Freedom to Johnson, a NASA mathematician who calculated and verified the travel trajectories that took the first Americans to space.

    Katherine Johnson calculated launch and landing in space

  5. Liza says:

    This is a great story that I didn’t know about. I’m really looking forward to seeing this film.

    Some folks seem to get all the good DNA.

  6. Ametia says:

    Thank you, SG2, for showcasing our HER-STORY!

    I’m going to see this movie with my sisters and daughters next year.

    This is the INFORMATION age, and their is NO excuse for any of us to not research our history, pass it on to our children and value it with all our hearts. If we don’t find ways to TRUTH, no one is ever going to bring it to us.

  7. CarolMaeWY says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this story. My education lacked Black history and I feel robbed of a good education.

  8. rikyrah says:

    I can’t wait to see this movie 😊☺

  9. Black women rock!

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