Katherine Johnson's job at NASA was empowering

Katherine Johnson's job at NASA was empowering

The plaudits for Katherine Johnson, the African American math genius whose work helped Americans to fly in space and ultimately to the moon, have been many and well deserved. Anyone who has seen the movie “Hidden Figures,” or better yet read the book, which lacks the Hollywood embellishments of the film, is familiar with her story. She worked in an age in which human beings, even women of color, could be called “computers” because of their skill in writing equations with nothing more than a pencil, paper and a slide rule.

The great tragedy of Katherine Johnson was that she was not as famous fifty years ago as she is now. The faces of the race to the moon were the astronauts and some of the flight controllers, such as the incomparable Gene Kranz, all white men. Most people did not know that a group of African American women, starting when Jim Crow was still the law of the land in southern states, were crucial for putting men on the moon. If they had, negative attitudes about the costs and benefits of going to the moon might have been far different.

For example, a few days before the launch of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, then a civil rights leader, arrived at the Kennedy Space Center with a group of primarily African American protestors. The protest was motivated by the belief that the enormous amount of money being spent on the lunar mission could better be spent alleviating poverty and other needs of the African-American community. The protest constituted a harsh counterpoint to one of the greatest days in American history.

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Around the same time, the blues musician, poet, and political activist Gil-Scott Heron composed a song entitled “Whitey on the Moon.” The song expressed in even starker terms the discontent that many African Americans at the time felt toward the Apollo program.

“A rat done bit my sister Nell
With Whitey on the moon.
Her face and arms began to swell
And Whitey's on the moon.”

It is virtually certain that neither the Reverend Abernathy nor Heron had ever heard of Katherine Johnson or of her sister math and science geniuses. If they had, they might not have concluded that the Apollo program was a project solely of and for white America.

For Katherine Johnson, NASA and the race to the moon were not a misplaced priority. For her, the early space program was empowering. The book “Hidden Figures” informs us that before World War II the best that an African American who was adept at science and math could hope for was to teach at a segregated high school. The necessity to recruit science and math talent, first to win World War II, then to wage the Cold War, broke down race and gender barriers. The effort to design and build first aircraft, then spaceships opened new career opportunities for women and minorities.

Katherine Johnson’s math sent Alan Shepard on the first suborbital flight and then John Glenn into orbit. The flight of Apollo 11, the same mission that Abernathy and company protested, flew as much on Johnson’s equations as it did on rocket fuel. Less than a year later, Katherine Johnson did the math that helped bring the crew of the stricken Apollo 13 command module safely home. Johnson’s work at NASA extended well into the shuttle era. She also worked out the trajectories for a hypothetical human mission to Mars.

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One wonders what might have transpired if Katherine Johnson had been present at the Kennedy Space Center on that summer day in 1969 and had been able to explain to Reverend Abernathy that what she was doing mattered, that it was she who was doing it mattered. She spent much of her life and gave her genius for the exploration of space, one of the noblest efforts ever undertaken by humankind. Perhaps race and social justice would not have been used as an excuse to truncate the Apollo program by unscrupulous and narrow-minded politicians if her contributions and those of her colleagues had been more widely known.  

Katherine Johnson lived to see her efforts appreciated by a new generation, whose members were not yet born when men first set foot on the moon. She died in her prime, as it were, at the age of 101, just a few years short of the planned return to the moon. When the crew of the Artemis, more diverse than lunar missions decades ago, sets foot on the lunar surface, her spirit will be with them.

Mark R. Whittington writes frequently about space and politics. He has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.