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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Paolitto, Ph.D.


Before the iPhone, Google, and the internet -- there were the Commodore VIC-20, Timex Sinclair, Bowmar Brain and original TI-30 (you can look up the latter items with your iPhone using Google and the internet!). And apples only grew on trees. But even before all of these, there was Katherine Johnson, “The Human Computer,” who was born at the twilight of World War I and died last month [February 24, 2020] at age 101.

Katherine was hired by the agency which would eventually become NASA in 1953 where she worked as an aerospace technologist until her in retirement in1986. Before the Shuttle program, the ISS, Neil & Buzz and the Apollo moon landings, Project Gemini and space walks, there were NASA’s original Mercury astronauts -- the magnificent 7 -- the guys with “the right stuff”.

Katherine Johnson was there for all of it. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard was about to become the United States first man in space. Sitting crouched on his back in the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule (about the size of the backseat of a ’61 Volkswagen Beetle) for four hours after a series of countdown delays, he impatiently uttered the iconic phrase “Let’s light this candle”! The ‘candle’ lifted off and followed a ballistic arc above and beyond the earth’s atmosphere boldly going to where no American man had gone before. Everything of course had to be precise and exact and meticulously calculated, including not just the flight trajectory but his descent after the capsule’s parachutes deployed so the recovery crew could quickly and precisely find him in that tiny body of water, the Atlantic Ocean.

Shepard’s life depended on everything to be perfect. All of these calculations were worked and checked out by Johnson -- by hand.

In 1962, Astronaut John Glenn was not just doing a “go up and down” flight, he was going to orbit the Earth three times. The complexity of this endeavor necessitated the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking around the world. The archaic “stone knives and bearskins” computers of the day had been pre-programmed with equations that would control the orbital trajectory of Glenn’s mission. But Glenn wasn’t biting. The early astronauts were less than cautiously optimistic in trusting their lives to the cathode ray tubes and transistors of the electronic computers of the day, which were prone to blackouts and glitches (if you have Comcast as your cable provider you know what I mean). During the preflight checklist, Glenn demurred on launching unless the flight controllers specifically got Johnson to “check the numbers” by hand to verify the computers work to make sure they were not only correct, but safe: “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go!”

Katherine also went to the moon. She worked out the calculations that coordinated Apollo's LEM (lunar excursion module) liftoff from the moon and subsequent docking with the command module which was orbiting miles above (kind of an important part of the mission!). She worked on the space shuttle program and was even involved in the planning stages for a hypothetical mission to Mars. In 2015, she was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. In 2017 NASA honored her by naming its new research center after her, The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.

This week, let us all try to do something to honor Johnson’s memory, and intelligence. When you work on your taxes, pay a bill, balance your checkbook, or calculate the tip when you go out for dinner, put away your iPhone, calculator, slide rule or abacus. DO THE MATH! Do it in your head, by hand, or count on your fingers. Use an eraser if needed. Add, subtract, multiply and divide -- these words are verbs -- they require an action. C’mon, you can do -- you’ve done it before (I hope). Like Katherine, take part in that one small step for man, one giant leap for womankind.

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> Katherine Johnson has been a permanent member of our revolving Real Smart People

Hall of Fame since its inception on our web site in 2018.

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