Katherine Johnson: the remarkable NASA mathematician

Philippa – Year 10 Student

Editor’s note: This short essay was recently entered into the GSAL Black History Essay Writing Competition, organized by The GSAL Journal and UPSoc to coincide with Black History Month. Open to all students in Year 10-13, the purpose of the competition was to encourage students to undertake independent research, think critically and communicate clearly about an aspect of black history of interest to them. The Competition Poster provides more information about the competition brief and success criteria. CPD

Science is something that is theoretically based entirely on fact, data and logic. It supposed to be something in which those with the sharpest minds and the most contributions are valued above all others. It’s supposed to be a field in which facts matter more than opinions and it is a simple right or wrong. Yet science has forgotten so many that helped build society to the world we are in today.

A prime example of this is when Nasa forgot the POC women who helped bring a man to the moon. They were immortalised years later in the film “Hidden Figures” but at the time their monumental contributions were given so much less recognition than they deserved and science was overruled by prejudice. Katherine Johnson who was a mathematician so brilliant that she was trusted over the early computers and so accurate that the astronauts wouldn’t take off until she had personally checked the calculations. Yet she wasn’t allowed to attend school in the area she lived and couldn’t go to university, couldn’t even go to the bathroom in the building in which she worked. It is unthinkable the level of separation and the idea of treating someone they relied upon so much. Someone who made so much progress and led others through the steps they needed to guide the first step we made on our moon. They helped people to make the steps that changed the course of the space race and let people take their first steps off of our home and into the last frontier beyond.

Katherine Johnson who was a mathematician so brilliant that she was trusted over the early computers and so accurate that the astronauts wouldn’t take off until she had personally checked the calculations.

There is a famous story to do with the Nasa corporation in which a man who cleans the floors who when asked what he does, he answers that he was helping to get a man on the moon. This could be seen as a sign of a healthy work environment and a good community within a team of people. So how does this same environment ignore and other a woman like Katherine Johnson who pushed the boundaries and proved that she was one of the most capable minds if not the most capable mind in the room? They were leaders who chose to make progress and to help others and helped take huge leaps so that people could take their small steps on the moon.

Even though these women helped take huge steps and were integral in bringing people to the moon they were badly represented and a woman of colour was not in space until 1992. How ironic is it that when women of colour were so important in the first moon landing they were not allowed to space themselves until so long after.

This all shows the way that even in a field that is meant to be purely logic and not have prejudice thrown into the mix people of colour were still treated as other and as if they could not be enough to help the cause. It is a testament to these great women that they defied societies’ broken image of what they were not and showed themselves as incredibly brilliant and brave. Philippa

Sources

https://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/nasas-overlooked-star/

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/lists/hidden-figures-10-films-stars-real-life-inspirations-964715/dorothy-vaughan-portrayed-by-octavia-spencer/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2020/jul/11/black-history-timeline

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