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The human computer that sent us to space

By 12th Jun 2018 No Comments

If you seen the movie Hidden Figures, you’d know it was inspired by the true story of Katherine Johnson. She was an incredible mathematician that made a massive contribution to space travel.

She’s inspiring because it was considered rare and difficult for African American women to make it into NASA’s space program AND she was an incredibly intelligent woman. She was critical to the success of NASA’s Apollo program.

Katherine was born in 1918 in a town know as White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. Her father knew there was something special about her before she became a teenager. Even though they lived a modest life as farmers, her father moved them to Institute (about 200 km away from his job) just so Katherine could get a good education. Katherine was so intelligent that she graduated high school at 14 and had a college degree by the age of 18. Whilst in her teaching career, she spotted an opportunity at NASA. Back in the day “computers” was the term used to describe women who performed mathematical calculations by hand. She was hired in 1953.

Her first major achievement was calculating the trajectory for the first human in space. They needed the capsule to land in a certain space and had to figure out where it needed to start in order for that to happen. Katherine nominated herself to the challenge. She is quoted as saying “Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.” Even when electronic computers where able to work out equations such as trajectory, many people went to Katherine to double-check their calculations. She worked at NASA for a further 32 years and her contributions helped us land on the moon.

Finally, in 2015 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 2016 the film Hidden Figures was created in her honour. Without her, it would of take NASA longer to put man on the moon.

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