Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician
Katherine Johnson talks about her early affinity for mathematics, a college professor who noticed her gift and pushed her to pursue advanced math courses and how she eventually became a NASA mathematician who calculated, among many other computations, the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space.
Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician
Sandra Day O'Connor, First Female Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
Catharine MacKinnon, Pioneering Legal Scholar
KATHERINE JOHNSON: Math. It's just there. It has always been a part of whatever I was doing.
- All engines running.
KATHERINE JOHNSON: You're either right or you're wrong. That I liked about it.
They tell me I counted everything. Everybody studied at a big table, and after I finished mine, I helped them get theirs. And I was the youngest. I wound up ahead of my brother, maybe two grades. I don't remember how many. I entered college. I was 15. I was gonna be a math teacher because that was it. You could be a nurse or a teacher.
He said, you'd make a good research mathematician. I said, oh? What do they do? He said, you'll find out. So he had me take all the courses in the catalog. Sometimes I was the only person in the course. I said, where will I find a job? He said, you'll look till you find it. Took me seven years, but I found it.
He said, you're very lucky. Langley has a post for black mathematicians, just opened it up to women. They had a pool of women mathematicians. They just wanted somebody to do all the little stuff, while they did the thinking. We were called computers, women computers. I had been there less than a week, when this engineer came in and wanted two women computers, and Mrs. Vaughn sent me over to the flight branch. And we never went back.
- Today, a new moon is in the sky, placed in orbit by a Russian rocket.
KATHERINE JOHNSON: Oh, they felt terrible that, here we sat, and the Russians had a vehicle riding around, looking down on you. So we set out to send somebody up there and look down to. They'd called up a group of engineers and have a briefing as to what they were gonna have to do. And I asked, could I go? They said, women don't ever go to those. I said, is there a law against it? They said, no, well, let her go ahead. I wanted to know what it was they were looking for. So I wound up doing what it was they were trying to find out.
- Commander Alan B. Shepard was to become the first man sent into sub-orbital flight. The Mercury capsule is right on course.
KATHERINE JOHNSON: Our office computed every mission that went out at that time-- the height, the speed, and so on. It became a geometry problem.
- Ignition sequence start.
KATHERINE JOHNSON: I felt most proud of the success of the Apollo mission.
- Zero. All engines running--
KATHERINE JOHNSON: They were going to the moon.
- We have a lift off.
KATHERINE JOHNSON: I computed the path that would get you there. You determined where you were on Earth when you started out, and where the moon would be at a given time. We told them how fast they would be going, and the moon will be there by the time you got there.
- Beautiful, just beautiful.
KATHERINE JOHNSON: We were really concerned when they were leaving the moon, going back. He had two adjusters, we said. If he'd missed it by a degree, he doesn't get into orbit. I was looking at the television. I said, boy, I hope he's got that right.
And I was sitting there hoping I'm right, too.
John Glenn said, tell her. He knew that I was the only woman that worked on it. He said, if she comes up with the same answer that they have, then the computer's right. It took me a day and a half to compute what the computer had given them. Turned out to be the exact numbers that they had.
It was my job. And I did my job correctly and well.
- They announced that they were looking for people to do programming to send man to the moon, and I just thought wow, I've gotta go there. I grew up in the Midwest, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, upper peninsula. I just enjoyed school, but there was something about math that I just liked more than everything else. I liked deriving the answers, 'cause I didn't wanna memorize, it was too much. I was lazy. When my husband was in law school they wanted the law wives, my being one of them, to pour tea. And I said to my husband, no way am I pouring tea. I was a Harvard Law wife. If I go to Harvard Law School fine, I'll do what the men do, but I'm not gonna be put in that position, and was very proud of me that I had taken that stand. They announced that they were looking for people to do programming to send man to the moon. I was the first programmer they hired. I came up with the term software engineer, and it was considered a joke. What, software is engineering? Mostly men were working there and they had somebody at home to take care of their kids. I had no choice. I'd bring my daughter Lauren into work nights and weekends, and she'd see me playing astronaut to test the software, and doing the kinds of things the astronaut would do. So, she wanted to do it too, so she played astronaut. And all of a sudden everything came crashing on the simulator, and I realized that what she had done is that she selected the prelaunch program during flight. I said oh my god, this not good. We really need to put a protection in there 'cause the astronaut really could do what she did by mistake. I tried to get it through MIT/NASA. No, they said astronauts are trained never to make a mistake. There was an emergency. Everything happened that we thought would happen if they made the mistake, so then there was a decision, go, no-go, land, or don't land. Fortunately, the people at mission control trusted our software, and they said go, go, go. The software and the hardware worked perfectly. The software was on the ground and on the moon.
- [Neil] That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
- Her example speaks of the American spirit of discovery that exists in every little girl and little boy who know that somehow to look beyond the heavens is to look deep within ourselves.
- Being fearless, even when the experts say no this doesn't make sense, they didn't believe it, nobody did. It was something that we were dreaming of happening, but it became real.
MARIA PEPE: When I was a young girl and people would say, what do you want to be when you grow up? I used to answer I want to be a Yankee.
I think the day that I was given the permission to have the tryouts for the Hoboken Young Democrats, that was probably the most exciting moment, because I knew I was going to make the team. And I was just so looking forward to having a uniform. I was starting pitcher.
Not everyone realized that I was a girl. My hair was short. So you just saw a couple of small curls hanging out of my baseball cap. It took a little while into that first game before some of the other coaches were saying, hey, wait a minute, Jimmy's got a girl on the team. The rule book says that girls aren't allowed to play.
My coach Jimmy Farina tried to argue with the coaches and say look, Maria's just as good as the boys. Little League issued a letter to the town, if you don't remove Maria, we're going to take the charter away from Hoboken.
My coach said to me, Maria you can come to the games and keep score. Well I have to be honest, I did that for one game. And I could not just sit there and take score, because I wanted to be out there.
The National Organization for Women had read about the story and was fuming at the fact that they let me off the team. And so that's when they filed the suit against Little League with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights claiming that I was being discriminated against because I was a girl.
Thank god for Judge Silvia Pressler because she had the wisdom. What she read in her decision was that the institution of Little League is as American as the hot dog and apple pie. And there's not any reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls.
It was the 30th anniversary of the ruling and Little League headquarters asked if I would come to throw the first pitch at the opening day of the Little League World Series. I remember them asking would you mind going down, Dr. Creighton Hale would like to meet you. Well, you know, I took a deep breath. He approached me. And he shook my hand. And he looked at me, and he said, you know, I just want you to know my granddaughter plays.
That's my gift is that I get to see so many girls actually enjoying it and participating and not being discriminated for it, but actually being encouraged to grow in the sport.
CONNIE CHUNG: The business that I've been in requires sticking your neck out. You can't sit back and wait for the story to come to you. You have to go pursue it. Dig, push, and be bold.
My parents and my four older sisters were all born in China. They arrived in Washington, DC. Less than a year later, I was born. In China, all you want are boys. So when they had yet another girl, it was like, eh, all right. I always wanted to be the son that my father never had. So I was going to make Chung memorable. With five girls, I could never get a word in. So I was the quiet little sister.
I'm Connie Chung.
They couldn't believe it when I got into television news and I had to speak to the world. And my father was such a news buff. We would watch Uncle Walter every night, Walter Cronkite. He was the man. So early on, when you could only see my hand holding a microphone-- that's Connie's hand. He was just eating it all up.
It was a little local station, and the only job they had open was for a secretary. And I thought, oh god, typical. I did that for several months, but they had an opening for a writer. It was the late '60s. The Civil Rights Act had passed in '64. There was a heavy push to hire women and minorities. So I became the writer in charge of the assignment desk.
There was this one reporter who was really lazy. So I'd say, why don't you watch the desk, and I'll do the story? I know you don't want to do it. So then I'd do stories. They finally let me go on the air, and then a short time later, CBS News, the network, was getting such pressure to hire women.
So in 1971, I was hired along with Michele Clark, black, Leslie Stahl, a nice Jewish girl with blond hair, and Sylvia Chase, a shiksa with blonde hair. Everybody was a male. I mean, everybody, the staff, the producers, the executive producers, the Bureau Chief, the people we covered on Capitol Hill, the White House, the State Department, men.
We all went through a very rigorous hazing period. There were camera people who, they didn't want to take orders from us. Or else I'd be covering some senator on Capitol Hill, and he'd say, "Well, sweet little lady, what sweet little question do you have for me?" And I just stuck it to him. They pitted the women against each other. Who would get the woman job? Leslie Stahl and I would frequently be told to go cover the First Lady doing something that we knew would never get on the air.
Ed Bradley would go up to the assignment editor and say no. But I really had a hard time saying no. There is this mentality on my part-- the good little girl, fear of being fired, fear of being uncooperative, fear of being the five-letter B word. Every step of the way, there were issues being a woman. The only way we could move forward was to do our job and do it better than anyone else.
- Here's to Connie Chung.
- (SINGING) Here's to LA. News to LA. And from our newsroom comes the history of the day.
- This is the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and Connie Chung.
DAN RATHER: Good evening, and welcome, Connie.
CONNIE CHUNG: Thank you, Dan. When I was first told that I would be co-anchoring with Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News, I couldn't believe it. Walter Cronkite was my idol, and I always wanted to be Walter Cronkite. I didn't think that that would ever happen. There are always these self-doubts, but I felt like I did know how to do the job. But it was very clear from the beginning that Dan Rather didn't want me there. He would not have wanted anyone there. He was very gracious upfront.
DAN RATHER: See you tomorrow.
CONNIE CHUNG: But you ask someone who's been in the job forever to move over and make room for somebody else, it's a recipe for disaster. It was a constant battle. I would have appreciated it if the boss had said, you know, it's over. I want to tell you face-to-face. But that didn't happen. They told my agent, and then he told me.
DAN RATHER: I'd like to take this moment to wish my longtime friend and colleague, Connie Chung, good luck and godspeed.
CONNIE CHUNG: I lost my dream job. It was completely devastating. Remarkably, though, my husband and I had been working on adoption for a couple years. The firing occurred on a Friday. The next day, we get a call that our son was going to be ours. It was, oh my god. My life just went flip. Lose the job, get our son. Woo! I had a baby when I was almost 50. It worked well for me. Everything that happened in my career was meant to be.
One thing that women really need to remember is sing your praises the way the men do. Sing your own praises. I was indispensable. You're welcome.
VIOLET PALMER: I was scared out of my wits because I just knew that the entire world was waiting for me to fall on my face.
I love being a girl. I just didn't really like the girly things. My mother couldn't make me cook and put on the makeup and play with the Barbies and all that stuff. Didn't want to do it. When it came to sports, it was just my knack. And the time when I was trying to go to college, Title IX had just kicked in, and they started providing more money for women's athletics.
Getting a scholarship, you could go to school for free, that was huge. That was more of an accomplishment than actually playing the actual basketball. I took a couple of part time jobs in the summer, and I was scorekeeping men's basketball. And a couple of times, my referees didn't show up. So of course, I would put the shirt on, start refereeing.
- Violet Palmer became the first ever female ref.
VIOLET PALMER: When I literally walked out on the floor for the first time to referee a pro basketball game, I went, oh my god. What have I gotten myself into? Cameras were flicking, everybody's looking, I hear all the whispers, oh my god, the woman is here. Generally, it was a good old boys club, and I think that's what in any sport.
There were a lot of referees that resented women, you know, joining the ranks. They thought that they were going to have to talk differently, maybe they couldn't yell at me, maybe they couldn't use the foul language with me, maybe couldn't touch me. All the things that were said-- the reporters, the players, the coaches, you name it-- I heard it. Go back and referee the women's game. Your ponytail is too tight.
CEDRIC MAXWELL: To Violet Palmer, go back to the kitchen. Go in there and make me some bacon and eggs, would you?
VIOLET PALMER: I think, for me, that really gave me more motivation to go out, learn the craft, do the job, be a professional, and show every single person that, you know what, you will be quiet real soon because you will see I can do my job just like any male referee on that floor.
I can break up fights pretty easy. I step in, they stop. If the guys step in, they may punch them in the mouth. They won't do it with me. So I think being that strong female out there sometimes can calm the waters.
I'm given the respect as a woman, but I've earned the respect as a referee.