August 26, 1918 The Computer Wore a Skirt

“So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.”

In plasma physics, the Heliosphere is a vast cavity formed by the Sun, a “bubble” continuously “inflated” by plasma originating from that body known as “solar wind’ and separating our own solar system, from the vastness of interstellar space. The outermost reach of the Heliosphere comprises three major sections called the Termination Shock, the Heliosheath, and the Heliopause, so called because solar winds and interstellar winds meet to form, a zone of equilibrium.

Image converted using ifftoany

Only five man-made objects have traversed the heliosphere to penetrate interstellar space: Pioneer 10 and 11 launched in 1972-73, Voyager 1 and 2 launched in 1977 and New Horizons which left earth’s atmosphere, in 2006. Of those five only three remain active and continue to transmit data back to our little blue planet.

Voyager 2 Spacecraft

Spectacular images may be found on-line if you’re inclined to look them up. Images such as this jaw dropping shot of the ‘Blue Planet” Neptune taken two days before point of closest contact in August, 1989.

This picture of Neptune was taken by Voyager 2 less than five days before the probe’s closest approach of the planet on Aug. 25, 1989. The picture shows the “Great Dark Spot” – a storm in Neptune’s atmosphere – and the bright, light-blue smudge of clouds that accompanies the storm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Or these images of the rings of Neptune taken on this day thirty two years ago before Voyager 2 left the last of the “gas giants”, behind.

Voyager 2 took these two images of the rings of Neptune on Aug. 26, 1989, just after the probe’s closest approach to the planet. Neptune’s two main rings are clearly visible; two fainter rings are visible with the help of long exposure times and backlighting from the Sun.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Few among us are equipped to understand the complexity of such flight. Precious few. One such was a little girl, an American of African ancestry born this day in 1918 in White Silver Springs, West Virginia. The youngest of four born to Joyletta and Joshua Coleman, Creola Katherine showed unusual mathematical skills from an early age.

For black children, Greenbrier County West Virginia didn’t offer education past the eighth grade, in the 1920s. The Colemans arranged for their kids to attend high school two hours up the road in Institute, on the campus of West Virginia State College. Katherine took every math class offered by the school and graduated summa cum laude with degrees in mathematics and French, in 1937.

There were teaching jobs along the way at all-black schools and a marriage to Katherine’s first husband, James Goble. The couple would have three children together before James died of a brain tumor. Three years later she married James A. “Jim” Johnson.

With all that going on at home, Katherine found time to become one of only three black students to attend graduate school at West Virginia University and the only female, selected to integrate the school after the Supreme Court ruing Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada.

Careers in research mathematics were few and far between for black women in 1952, but talent and hard work wins out where ignorance, fears to tread.

So it was Katherine Johnson joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), in 1952. Johnson worked in a pool of women who would read the data from aircraft black boxes and carry out a number of mathematical tasks. She referred to her co-workers as “computers who wore skirts”.

Flight research was a man’s world in those days but one day, Katherine and a colleague were asked to fill in, temporarily. Respect is not given it is earned, and Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry made quick work of that. Male bosses and colleagues alike were impressed with her skills. When her “temporary” assignment was over it no longer seemed all that important to send her, back to the pool.

Katherine would later explain that barriers of race and sex continued, but she could hold her own. Meetings were taken where decisions were made, where no women had been before. She’d simply tell them that she did the work and this was where she belonged, and that was the end of that.

Johnson worked as a human computer through most of the 1950s, calculating in-flight problems such as gust alleviation, in aircraft. Racial segregation was still in effect in those days according to state law and federal workplace segregation rules introduced under President Woodrow Wilson some forty years, earlier. The door where she worked was labeled “colored computers” but Johnson said she “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. I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.”

“We needed to be assertive as women in those days – assertive and aggressive – and the degree to which we had to be that way depended on where you were. I had to be. In the early days of NASA women were not allowed to put their names on the reports – no woman in my division had had her name on a report. I was working with Ted Skopinski and he wanted to leave and go to Houston … but Henry Pearson, our supervisor – he was not a fan of women – kept pushing him to finish the report we were working on. Finally, Ted told him, “Katherine should finish the report, she’s done most of the work anyway.” So Ted left Pearson with no choice; I finished the report and my name went on it, and that was the first time a woman in our division had her name on something”.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine worked as an aerospace technologist from 1958 until retirement. She calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 flight to become the first American, in space. She worked out the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission and plotted navigational charts for backup in case of electronic failure. NASA was using electronic computers by the time of John Glenn’s first orbit around the earth but Glenn refused to fly until Katherine Johnson personally verified the computer’s calculations. Author Margot Lee Shetterly commented, “So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.”

Katherine Johnson retired in 1986 and lived to see six grandchildren and 11 “Greats”. Everyone should live to see their own great grandchild. Not surprisingly, Johnson encouraged hers to pursue careers in science and technology.

President Barack Obama personally awarded Johnson the medal of Freedom in 2015 for work from the Mercury program, to the Space Shuttle. NASA noted her “historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist.”

A delightful side dish for this story is the Silver Snoopy award NASA gives for outstanding achievement, “For professionalism, dedication and outstanding support that greatly enhanced space flight safety and mission success.”

Following the Mercury and Gemini projects, NASA was searching for a way to focus employees and contractors alike on their own personal contribution to mission success. They wanted it to be fun and interesting, like the Smokey the Bear character, of the United States Forest service. Al Chop of the Manned Spacecraft Center came up with the idea.

Peanuts creator Charles Shulz, a combat veteran of WW2 and avid supporter of the space program, loved the idea. Shulz drew the character to be cast in a silver pin and worn into space, by a member of the Astronaut corps. It is this astronaut who personally awards his or her Snoopy to the deserving recipient.

The award is literally once in a lifetime. Of all NASA personnel and that of many contractors fewer than one percent have ever receive the coveted Silver Snoopy.

Astronaut and former NASA associate administrator for education Leland Melvin personally awarded Johnson her own Silver Snoopy at the naming ceremony in 2016, for the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Astronaut and former NASA associate administrator for education Leland Melvin presents Katherine Johnson with a Silver Snoopy award. / Credit: NASA, David C. Bowman

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m closing in on a thousand. I do it because I want to & I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anybody else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

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