Jennifer Mondfrans

Thematic Painter

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Katherine Johnson

  • Mathematician
  • 1918-2020
      • 18x24

Dear You,

Since I could remember, mathematics was a friend to me. Most saw numbers on a page but I could visualize what they actually were– shapes in space. I skipped ahead several grades, went to high school at 10 then graduated college at 18. While a white man would be a sought-after graduate, as a black woman the only field open to me was teaching in an all-black school.
It was when West Virginia allowed integration that I left my job teaching and went into graduate school. But the call of family life beckoned and I left to raise 3 daughters. I was called back to work when the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory hired me. I spent the next four years analyzing data from flight tests. After Sputnik’s successful launch, NACA became NASA to concentrate on space travel.
In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, I was called upon to do the work that I would become most known for. As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—me—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on my desktop mechanical calculating machine. 
“If she says they’re good,’” I remember him saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space.
My greatest contribution to space exploration were the calculations that helped sync Project Apollo’s Lunar Module with the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module. I also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite and authored or coauthored 26 research reports.
While I was recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and lauded in the film “Hidden Figures”, my greatest joy was my work. I loved going to work every single day. Even though the racial and gender barriers were always there, I ignored them. I simply told people I had done the work and that I belonged.