NASA Chief Scientist’s Role Model: Katherine Johnson, NASA’s Human Computer

When Dr. Ellen Stofan, Chief Scientist at NASA, visited London a few months back, I had the distinct opportunity to accompany her to schools, universities and other institutions in the UK. Dr. Stofan, in majority of her presentations, talked about her role models at NASA. One of them is Katherine Johnson, also known as one of NASA’s human computers. NASA began recruiting African-American women as human computers in the 1940s, but due to segregation laws these “West Area Computers” were kept separate from their white counterparts. These women were nearly all top graduates of historically black colleges such as Hampton Institute, Virginia State and Wilberforce University. Though they did the same work as the white women hired at the time, they were cloistered away in their own segregated office in the West Area of the Langley campus– thus the moniker, the West Area Computers.

Katherine Johnson joined the West Area Computers in 1953. By 1958 she had become an aerospace technologist and eventually joined the Space Task Force, where she calculated trajectories for some of the Mercury missions, including MA-6, John Glenn’s first U.S. orbital flight. A bit wary of the calculations coming from the actual physical computers of the time, Glenn famously said, “Get the girl to check the numbers.” He was referring to Johnson.

Dr. Ellen Stofan discussing her female role model Katherine Johnson at the BETTS conference, London, January 2016

John Glenn had apparently asked for Katherine to come to the area where white counterparts worked. After validating the numbers, Katherine was asked to leave by one of the employees’ in Glenn’s section. She stood her ground and refused to leave the room much like her contemporary, Rosa Parks—the famous US civil rights activist who refused to give up her seat on the bus. While her story is relatively untold, Katherine Johnson’s assertive reaction brought several revolutionary changes to NASA’s administration, where NASA finally learned to acknowledge the immense value brought forth by its minority employees, whose work helped NASA launch many a space shuttle. A NASA official famously said: “While all eyes are on this man as he’s going into space and this is the woman who stood behind the man and checked the numbers”.

As a female diplomat and member of a minority group, I personally feel empowered by stories of minority women who have risen through the government. My new role model is Katherine Johnson, and I wouldn’t have learned about her had it not been for Dr. Ellen Stofan, she in fact inspired not just myself but hundreds of girls present at the BETTS conference (education technology show in London) by relating the story of her own female idol.

The American society today embraces diversity and I am fortunate to have the support system that did not exist then. Dr. Ellen Stofan, inspired by Katherine Johnson, who is still energetic and bubbly at the age of 93, is going to great lengths to attract minority groups to NASA. I salute the efforts of Katherine Johnson and Dr. Ellen Stofan for recognizing diversity!

Author: Mahvash Siddiqui – the Environment, Science, Technology and Health officer at the US embassy in London