Counting on Katherine Johnson

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One World English Course 3 (2021) pg. 102-107

Counting on Katherine Johnson
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BookOne World

What is your favorite subject? Have you ever wondered if you might get a job related to it in the future?
Katherine Johnson loved math. She was born in 1918 in West Virginia, U.S.A. As a young girl, she loved to count. She counted everything. She counted the number of steps she took. She counted the steps to church, She even counted the forks and plates when she washed the dishes.

Katherine was interested in learning about almost anything. When she started school, she skipped first grade because she could already read. At that time African Americans and white Americans had to go to different schools, but her hometown didn't have a high school for African Americans. Katherine's father wanted all of his four children to go to high school and college. He moved the entire family to a town that had a high school they could go to.

Katherine majored in math and French. She was ready to be a math researcher when she graduated from college with honors in 1937, but finding a job as a math researcher was difficult for an African American woman. She taught French and piano to elementary school children. She went to graduate school in the meantime. She got married and started her own family, too.
In 1953 Katherine was offered a job as a research mathematician at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). People called research mathematicians "computers" those days because their job was to compute numbers. Katherine loved her job as a computer.

Soon she was sent to work on a flight research project. In 1958, NACA became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. In 1961 the astronaut Alan Shepard made a partial orbit around the Earth in Freedom 7. Who did the math? Katherine!

NASA put Katherine on the team that worked to send Friendship 7 and astronaut John Glenn into space in 1962. NASA was relying on its first electronic computer to calculate Friendship flight path. John Glenn, however, had more faith in Katherine. He wanted her to check the computer's numbers. He said, "If she says the computer is right, I'll take it."

Katherine's calculations were not her only accomplishments at NASA. Those days only men attended the meetings for discussions of spaceflight. Katherine wanted to be at those meetings and kept asking if she could go, She even asked, "Is there a law against it?" She was eventually invited to attend all the meetings, and she participated in the discussions.

Katherine also became an important member of the team behind Apollo 11. On July 16, 1969, it launched and headed to the moon with three astronauts on board. Four days later, on July 20, astronaut Neil Armstrong took mankind's first step on the moon. Katherine's calculations were as accurate as ever. On July 24, the astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

Katherine worked on every space mission at NASA until she retired in 1986. In 2015 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was 97 at the time—an impressive number even for a math lover!

See also