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Katharine Johnson: hidden figure who made Apollo 11 possible

SPACE RACE STAR: Mathematician and former Nasa employee Katharine Johnson (Image: Nasa)

AS THE world celebrates 50 years since the Apollo 11 mission, we take a look at one black woman who was pivotal to the success of the groundbreaking space expedition.

"I counted everything: the steps, the dishes, the stars in the sky,” Katherine Johnson, mathematician and former Nasa employee, said of her childhood.

From counting stars to calculating to counting awards, Johnson persevered through adversity in the face of racial and gender discrimination.

She was destined for academic greatness from a young age. After graduating from high school at the mere age of 14, the maths prodigy gained a place at West Virginia University, making her one of the first three African Americans students to enrol in the University’s mathematical programme. Johnson began her career at Nasa at a time where Jim Crow laws were in full force across the US.

Johnson and her fellow black Nasa colleagues were referred to as the "coloured computers" - a name given to African Americans mathematicians and engineers at the organisation. They were confined to smaller offices, forced to use separate restrooms and denied the right to accredit their work.

As a black woman, Johnson was bound to face a surplus of barriers throughout her career. But with her highly advanced mathematical skills, and continued commitment to precision, she quickly elevated to higher positions amid the inherent discrimination that came with working in a space dominated by white men.

In 1961, Johnson took on the responsibility of calculating the flight path of Freedom 7, the space craft that put the first US astronaut in space. By this time she had earned and entrenched her reputation for her precise mathematical skills. In fact, John Glenn refused to fly his orbits around the Earth unless the computer's calculations had been personally verified by Johnson. The engineer spent her 35-year career at Nasa calculating the orbital mechanics behind behind Nasa missions. She co-wrote 26 scientific reports and became the first black women in her division to accredit her work.

Arguably the most pivotal point of her career was her instrumental role in the Apollo 11 mission, the space flight that landed the first humans on the moon. Johnson was responsible for mapping the Moon's surface in preparation for landing and creating an observational system that allowed astronauts to identify their location more accurately.

Before retiring from Nasa in 1986, Johnson laid the groundwork for a number of space shuttle programmes, following Apollo 11, and also helped Nasa transition to using actual computers.

In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom - the highest civilian award - by president Barack Obama.

In September 2016, American author and historian, Margot Lee Shetterly, published Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The book sought to "peel back the veneer" of institutional racism within Nasa, as well as shine light on the hidden figures that worked both tirelessly and diligently to put man on the moon.

Shetterly shone a light on three important women. Mary Jackson, who became the first black engineer at Nasa in 1958. Dorothy Vaughn, the first black manager at the National Advisory Committee or Aeronautics, an organisation which later became known as Nasa. And Katherine Johnson.

After winning a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Non-fiction, Shetterly's book was adapted into the multi award-winning film Hidden Figures, starring Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, who embodied the roles of the three powerful women in Shetterly's book.

Hidden Figures helped change Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson from an unsung heroes to a recognisable figures almost overnight. Shortly after the film's release, Nasa Langley dedicated a new building in her honour: the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.

Virginia State University unveiled a statue of Johnson and a STEM scholarship in her name and a street outside Nasa's headquarters was also renamed after her. Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who co-sponsored a bill to rename the block, said he hoped the name would inspire future generations.

Johnson’s achievements have influenced both children and young adults across the globe. On Saturday, Obama took to Twitter to highlight the remarkable work of Tiffany Davis, a young and aspiring aerospace engineer who notes Johnson as her inspiration.

Although there is no doubt Johnson’s story has inspired a number of black women to pursue careers in STEM, there is still a significant lack of black women in the sector.

In 2016, The National Science Foundation, a US government agency, found that although black women earned more than 33,000 bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering and 24 per cent of doctorates awarded to black women were in STEM, only 5 per cent of managerial jobs in STEM are held by black women.

Shawntel Okonkwo: award-winning PhD candidate in molecular biology said “intersectionality will save the future of science".

To save the future of STEM, Okonkwo believes we need to build intersectionality into the cultural DNA of who does science, how we fund science and how we communicate science to young adults. Astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has also argued that more needs to be done to make the sector more inclusive. "A lack of mentoring, a lack of representation, a lack of support, really translates into people feeling unwelcome in the field,” she said.

It’s been 50 years since the extraordinary work of Johnson helped with the launch of Apollo 11, something we should all recognise and celebrate.

But those pushing for improved diversity are keen to make sure that 50 years from now there is a significant increase in the numbers of black female representation in STEM. It is people like Erika Jefferson, president and founder of Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWISE) that are working to achieve this aim. Jefferson believes her organisation, which is focused on bridging the leadership gap for black women in STEM, will help to prepare, train and develop the next generation of black women leaders in the sector.

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