About this time in 1968 the world was buzzing with the news of the December 27 successful return of three Americans from orbiting the moon. No one had previously done that. A few months later, on July 20 1969, the Americans raised the bar even farther when they landed humans on the surface of the moon. No other country in the world has achieved that feat till date.
The men who flew on these missions were celebrated and became famous. But the story of these men and the few white men in crisp white shirts and ties seen on world television monitoring the spectacular space journey from mission control on earth shielded away some incredible black women who played a major role in making the trips possible.
First, the beginning.
The space race between the US and USSR kicked off in the week of August 2, 1955 when both countries announced plans to be in space. Two years later the USSR drew the “first blood” with the launch of Sputnik 1 to orbit the earth on October 8, 1957. Four years later, that country broke another record when on April 12, 1961 it sent the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into earth’s orbit.
The Americans were not amused. President John F. Kennedy challenged American space scientists to land a man on the moon within ten years to overcome the Soviet lead in the race.
The monumental Challenge.
America’s big headache and Russia’s advantage, turned out to be in mathematics, specifically analytic geometry widely used in physics, engineering, aviation, rocketry, space science and spaceflight.
Unfortunately, at that time, there were no digital devices to help crunch the data to run the precise computations required for the lift off, orbiting and landing of a spacecraft. Human computers or computers as they were then called had to take on that onerous job and the Russians were better at it.
Then came the women, a bunch of black women.
To do the numbers, NASA drafted a pack of black women who were extraordinarily good in mathematics. One of them was Katherine Johnson.
Born in 1918 (White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia) into an era of segregation and limited educational opportunity for blacks in America, Katherine, was said to be an intensely curious child gifted with numbers. She raced through school and graduated with a B.S in Mathematics and French at the age of 18.
She began work at the aeronautics agency that later became NASA as a temporary staff in 1953. But within two weeks, she was reassigned to another part of the agency that required a lot of mathematical calculations and her job offer made permanent.
In 1961, her co-authored report which laid out the equation for an orbital spaceflight and landing position on earth made it possible for the Americans to send their first astronaut into space and back safely.
By 1962, IBM computers had taken over the complex calculations required for space flights. But John Glenn who was assigned to be the first American to orbit the earth declared that he would not go on that mission until “that girl”-meaning Katherine manually cross checked the calculations that had been made by the newly installed IBM computers. Working under intense pressure, Katherine crunched the numbers manually and Glenn went on the mission successfully. That feat placed Katherine on the A list of mathematicians at NASA and guaranteed a three decades service to America and humanity.
Nevertheless, it is not just Katherine’s mathematical wizardry that made a her a remarkable lady. She worked under some of the most dehumanising conditions at Nasa for years.
For instance, though her work was critical to the success of NASA, she was not allowed to speak to her bosses except when spoken to. The raw data she needed to do complex calculations were initially given to her heavily redacted (blanked out with black ink) as they were considered classified.
Moreover, she was not given security clearance to attend strategy meetings which provided background insights into the kind of calculations she would be doing. On many occasions, as soon as she finished a set of calculations, she would be told that the parameters had changed and be made to do fresh calculations. And when the final calculation was made and cleared, she was not allowed to put her name on the report.
The nature of the job demanded that workers drink a lot of coffee to remain alert and relieve tension. But even here too, Katherine faced a challenge as she was not allowed to use the coffee break room or the canteen. Finally, at the initial stage, there was no bathroom for her to relieve herself. She had to walk about a mile from her office to a bathroom for “coloured people.”
Despite all the hurdles thrown her way, she kept churning out stunning and precise calculations that humbled her immediate boss and raised her profile to the pinnacle of the space agency. For decades, NASA relied on her sterling work to send rockets and shuttles into space.
In 2015, President Obama honoured Katherine with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award bestowed on a civilian by American Presidents. A year later, NASA named a building, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, after her.
Katherine’s life history is featured in the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures”, the inspiration for this article. She clocked a hundred years in August 2018.
Commenting on the work done by Katherine and the other black women who worked with NASA, American singer and actress Janelle Monae played a character in the movie told America’s National Public Radio in an interview,
“I was really upset because, as an African-American young woman, I had no idea who Katherine Johnson was. This clearly had to be a mistake. These are American heroes. Without their brains, without their hard work and dedication to NASA and the long hours that they worked together, we would have not made it into space. We would not have made it into orbit.”
The lessons from this piece are many. Women are not intellectually inferior to men. Therefore, as a woman, you must identify very early in your life what gift you came to the world with and decide what to do with it no matter what challenges you may need to overcome. Even if you think, you have lost a lot of ground in your life, make good use of whatever you think is left. Hang out with those who will inspire you not those who want to mourn about the past and forget there is still some future left.
You must learn not to unnecessarily lean heavily on a man, such that when that man fails or disappoints or dies, you drop through the cracks and disappear. You must understand that being a woman in a male dominated world, you are encumbered ab initio and must plot your way forward with a feisty determination.
Women should use their God bestowed talents to complement those of men and advance the course of humanity.
In 2019, stand your grand. Be the woman you want to be.