Philip Graden

Katherine Johnson, The Human Computer

The year is 1961. President John F. Kennedy stands before Congress and boldly states “the United States should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

Next came the hard part. How was the country going to achieve President Kennedy’s challenge?

Three words: the human computer.

Katherine Johnson landed safely on earth on August 26, 1918, in West Virginia, the child of a teacher and a lumberman, and a sister to three older siblings.

As a child, Johnson showed brilliance in the classroom, especially in math. Her intense curiosity with numbers foreshadowed the type of calculations she would perform later in life. She soared past her classmates, skipping grades and by the time she was 10 years old she was attending high school at the historically black campus of West Virginia State College (WVSC). At 14, she graduated high school. By 18, she had graduated summa cum laude from WVSC.

But the best was yet to come.

The year is 1939. West Virginia integrates its graduate schools and offers three black students spots at West Virginia University, the state’s flagship school.

Two men and Johnson are selected to represent the black community – especially groundbreaking for an African-American and a woman.

I bet you are asking, how could she outdo herself this time? Well…

The year is 1957. The Soviets successfully launch Sputnik 1. This event – a man orbiting the earth not once, but multiple times, upped the ante in the space race.

At this point in her career, Johnson is working at NASA, performing analytics and mathematical research for potential orbital spaceflight. During this time, she is recognized as the first woman in the Flight Research Division to receive credit as an author of a research report.

Finally, the year is 1962. Go time.

NASA is preparing for the orbital mission of John Glenn, a mission so complex it requires the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, Cape Canaveral and Bermuda. Glenn has little faith in the computer calculations of the controlled trajectory of the space capsule from departure to arrival.

So they call in the human computer.

Johnson had a reputation as more reliable and trustworthy than a machine and was tasked with verifying the computer’s calculations. She did this by hand crunching numbers on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. Years later she vividly remembered Glenn saying “if she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success, and he became the first American to orbit the earth, circling it three times.

America landed on the moon in 1969, fulfilling President Kennedy’s wish. We celebrate the brilliance of Katherine Johnson, a groundbreaker and innovator whose impact in space exploration deserves a place in the history books.