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The Life and Times of Katherine Johnson by Aiyla S.

Katherine Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on August 26th, 1918. Even as a juvenile, mathematics came as a natural expertise of hers, and she was intrigued by these studies. However, to everybody aside from her family, her adeptness in math was treated as if it were beside the point. Instead, Johnson faced much discrimination based on the color of her skin and her gender.

Katherine Johnson was an African American female living during a time of raging segregation. Especially back then, she and others were undervalued, underestimated, and underappreciated. They were constantly being lampooned and ostracized. Everyone overlooked the fact that Johnson excelled in math. However, that did not stop the math prodigy from thriving in her education; if anything it only intensified her determination.


Due to Johnson’s shrewdness and remarkable ability to read at an unusually young age, she was qualified to attend school early. In 1923, when she was finally old enough to begin school, five-year-old Katherine was settled into second grade. Since the future mathematician and astronomer was unnaturally precocious, she expeditiously finished all of elementary and middle school. Then, in 1928, when she was merely ten years old, she was brilliant enough to enter high school, but she was still judged based on her appearance.


However, there was no high school in Johnson’s hometown that permitted her to attend, so she was sent to an academy in Institute, West Virginia, a school on West Virginia State College’s campus. There, she met a handful of invigorating mentors who guided her along the way. Her astronomy mentor, Sherman H. Gus, planted the seed of her fascination and interest in astronomy. Another inspiring mentor that Katherine had in high school enlightened her about the art of geometry. That mentor was Angie Turner King, who aided Johnson in her eventual success.


In 1932, at age 14, Johnson deftly graduated high school without any academic travails and was prepared to attend college.


When this mathematician of quintessential intelligence reached college, she was indecisive about which field to major in---math or French? Naturally, she decided to major in both.

Later, at the West Virginia State College, Johnson crossed paths with a respected mathematics professor: W.W. Schieffelin Claytor, who was the third African American to ever obtain a PhD in math. However, because of his race, he encountered severe discrimination. Nonetheless, Claytor helped forge Johnson's route to success, believing in the promise of the young college scholar. Dr. Claytor was the very one who advised Johnson to become a mathematician after her college graduation. Johnson relished that proposal, and she strived to achieve that endeavor.


Enlightened mathematician as she was, Johnson swiftly graduated college at the young age of eighteen. A true testament to her success, she graduated with two bachelor of science degrees---one in mathematics and another in French, the two ambitions she had set her sights on accomplishing when her college years commenced.


After her graduation, Katherine Johnson chose to become a mathematics educationalist. She married James Goble, had three children with her husband, and underwent her graduate studies in physics and math. In 1953, while she was still enlightening children in mathematics, Johnson caught word that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring mathematicians. Her interest piqued, Johnson quickly applied for the profession, enthralled by the opportunity.


But it was too late. NACA did not have any space for additional mathematicians. Johnson was mandated to wait the duration of an entire year before she had the option to reapply, and unlike the last time, she was recruited. She gave up teaching to join NACA. There, Johnson worked indefatigably, performing convoluted calculations for her white male coworkers. But despite all she did for them, she was still treated as inferior, as were the other African American employees, chiefly the women. These mathematicians were inhumanly called “colored computers.”


Initially, neither Johnson nor any other of the African American women or men working assiduously at NACA were ever allowed into conferences. Solely white men were sanctioned to attend. But Johnson refused to acknowledge that rule. She asked such copious questions of the male engineers that the conveners finally permitted her to attend the meetings because of her undeniable intelligence.


Johnson soon gained the respect of the male engineers working at NACA. She was promoted to the Space Task Force and commissioned to calculate the direction in which certain spacecraft should travel. (This was around the time NACA’s name was changed to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, also known as NASA.)


When her husband died in 1956, Katherine married James A. Johnson in 1959. In May of 1961, NASA sent the first American astronaut, Alan Shepard, to space. Behind the whole plot, Johnson had the responsibility of calculating his flight trajectory. In 1962, Johnson, who had been promoted to the forewoman of her crew, worked with her team to send the Friendship 7 to space so that John Glenn, the spacecraft’s passenger, could orbit Earth. But prior to Glenn being equipped to orbit Earth on his mission, he asked Johnson, above everyone else, if she could re-check the calculations.


Johnson later worked with her team on sending a trio of American astronauts, Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., into orbit around the earth while on the moon.


Katherine Johnson effectuated many successful, audacious, unprecedented actions throughout her life, earning the presidential medal of freedom. She is remembered today as a female African American hero.

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