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.
Peggy Whitson, First Female Commander of the International Space Station
Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician
Diana Trujillo, Aerospace Engineer
- I was hanging in my sleeping bag on the wall of my sleep station, and I had gotten on the computer and printed off a couple of things that I needed for the day and floated through the lab, and I'm like I live in space. It was like this is my place of work. This is phenomenal! I was nine years old when the first guys walked on the moon and our folks put us to bed relatively early, but woke us back up so that we could watch that but I thought wow, cool job. I had a great mom who encouraged me to do whatever I wanted. I said something about being an airline pilot and my sister said you can't be an airline pilot, you can only be the flight attendant. My mom said no, that's not true. You can be whatever you want. It wasn't until I graduated high school in 1978 when they selected the first female astronauts that I think becoming an astronaut really became a goal of mine. Of course Sally Ride was influential in developing my image of what a female astronaut was. It became much more motivating to see that there were women there, that women could do this job. I didn't tell a lot of people that that's what I wanted to do because I thought you know they'd think I was just dreaming something that's not even possible. Bob Cabana who was chief of the astronaut office at the time called me, and so I was expecting a rejection and he's trying to make small talk with me and I'm like I don't have time for this, just tell me I didn't make it. But he's like would you like to come and work for me? And I went yes!
- [Narrator] Three new residents headed for the International Space Station. Commander Valery Korzun and flight engineers Peggy Whitson and Sergei Chekov.
- As a woman doing space walks is more challenging mostly because the suits are sized bigger than the average female, and yes it is risky. You're going 17,500 miles an hour around the Earth. Some people have a sense that they're actually falling off of the station. I never had that sensation. I opened the hatch and I was just like wow! I was going out there so fast. It was so beautiful, so incredible. I was commander of the station and then the second female shuttle commander actually arrived to the station, Pam Melroy, so we had the first two female commanders on orbit at the same time. One of the Russian bosses said it was because there were two women on board, and that was in spite of the fact that the previous crew, which was all male, had had the same problem. I've been on three selection boards now. We don't have enough applicants in the female categories. That's why one of the big pushes for NASA is this STEM education primarily focused on young girls because we want more women to understand that yes, you can do these jobs too. You just have to get the right education and training so that you can apply and make it happen.
- I'm going to turn command of the International Space Station over to Dr. Peggy Whitson. She now becomes the first two-time female commander of the International Space Station.
- I've had great jobs at NASA, but the most satisfying job I've ever had is being a member of a crew on board the space station. Every day, every task I felt like I was contributing to space exploration very directly and it's one of the great wonders.
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.
GWYNNE SHOTWELL: Engineers are nerds, right? I'm a geek. I'm a total nerd. And it wasn't OK to be nerds then. But the geeks won. They became the cool guys.
I'm a problem solver. I guess I always was a problem solver. And math and science attracted me. There's a certainty to mathematics that I love.
My mother said, you should be an engineer. I was a 15-year-old girl. I didn't know what an engineer was. I had no idea.
One day, we ended up on a Saturday afternoon, and there was a Society of Women Engineers event. I was very irritated. I had better things to do.
And this fabulous woman, a mechanical engineer, ran up for the panel discussion. And she had my attention.
That day I learned what engineers were and did. They're creators They're makers. They build things. They test things. And they make life a better deal.
I started on Halloween. I flew in on my broom and stayed there almost exactly 10 years.
Aerospace engineering is not well known to have a ton of women. I've always liked a challenge. I got to learn a lot. And I was an analyst.
Then I started leading teams. We call it a people engineer, which is a little unusual. But it's really important now.
The industry moved at an incredible pace in the '60s and '70s, and then it stagnated quite a bit. And so we were all kind of mavericks. And we wanted to do something.
One of the issues that the space industry suffers from is the massive costs associated with developing and deploying these technical systems. So we were going to change the whole face of launch by doing it at a dramatically reduced price without sacrificing reliability.
It was a risk, but I figured if I was going to take a shot, this was the shot to take.
When we heard from NASA that we were one of the two winners, I knew that SpaceX was fundamentally on its way, that we would make it to orbit, as well as a business.
We started small. The first rocket that we built we called Falcon 1. We struggled with getting that vehicle to orbit on that first launch. That failure was pretty dramatic for us. We grew up overnight.
We analyzed what went wrong. We went back to launch a year later, but we still had an issue. And then it took almost another year.
- 1. We have liftoff.
- We have liftoff.
GWYNNE SHOTWELL: And failed again. But we were super close that time. We knew exactly what was wrong. You don't learn anything from success, but you learn a lot from your failures. And we had three good ones under our belt.
It was 4:00 in the morning, and we were struggling a little bit as we were approaching the station. So we'd creep up, back away, rewrite some software.
And we finally got there. We got into what we call the berthing box. And then they command a kind of shut down of the spacecraft. And that's when you go quiet, and then the arm comes down and grabs you and lifts you in.
It was historic. The room erupted. And there were thousands of people outside of mission control, screaming, crying, jumping up and down. It was the only time that a private company had ever done that. Governments had done it before, but not a little company like SpaceX.
I think the key about bringing more women into engineering is to make it accessible. When I was considering a career in engineering, I didn't have any good role models. If you have that curious mind and you like to solve problems, then it's almost inevitable that you would want to be an engineer.
It's extraordinary. You're building and making real things. There's this enormous sense of satisfaction that comes from that.
I like going to places and people are like, what do you do? And I'm like, I'm a rocket scientist. What else? I like having that power. The ability to take things that were imagination, that were in my mind, and make them a reality.
My mom and dad were both techies. My mom was a math major and my dad was an engineering major. And so when I grew up, I would get my little Betty Crocker bake oven, but I would also get my erector set.
I was always into science fiction and anything science-y that was on TV. When I saw "The Bionic Woman," I was totally fascinated. At the time, there wasn't a lot of positive female role models.
And here IT was, this beautiful person who was saving the world with these things called bionics.
- Jamie! Run, Jamie, run!
- We had the technology, which I always resonated with, but you had this social impact. And so I knew at that point that I wanted to build a bionic woman. That's what I want to do.
We're designing intelligent navigation systems for future Rover missions. And here I was, this young, you know, fresh out with her PhD leading engineers who were slightly older, and have not been exposed to a black female engineer. And I come into the room and, you know, first of all, I was really excited, because this was, like, my first lead, and I was this PI on this project.
I remember there was an engineer who was like, oh you're not supposed to be here. You need to go down the hall, because that's where the secretaries are. Basically, he dismissed me because of the way that I look. But I took up the courage and introduced myself, and was like, oh you're on my team. You know, we haven't met before. Let's get down to work. We've got to wait for the other folks. Those kind of things, it was just pushing forward, making sure that I spoke up and didn't sit down. Keep proving yourself, because you're awesome, and eventually that pendulum swings.
When I started at Georgia Tech, I knew space robotics. That's what I knew. And about three years in, I realized that I wanted to do more. That bionic woman desire kicked in, and I was like wait, I'm at Georgia Tech. I can do anything that I want. Why don't I focus on what I wanted to do originally-- this social impact, this health aspect in terms of robotics?
At the time, that was a big risk. Health care robotics was totally new. How do I get clinicians to buy into this idea, because I need medical professionals to work with me, and there are no steps because no one's done it before. So it's exciting, exhilarating, also terrifying.
In my lab research, we focus on robotic therapy. So how do we design robots for the home environment to engage children in their educational therapy goals. We brought in our therapy system into the home of a child with severe spasticity. So part of our system is you play a game. I remember sitting there and the child was in the wheelchair, and at one point he hits one of the objects and it pops and there's like this feedback, so it was like this [HIGH PITCHED SQUEAL] and there's a smile on this kid's face that, oh my. If you could just capture that and put it in a box. Any time you felt bad you could open it up. And at that moment, I was like, you know, we're doing the right thing. We are definitely doing the right thing.
Just like when you work on women initiatives it's good for everyone, when you work on initiatives that are accessible to diverse learning needs of children with special needs, it means you're working on something that works for everyone. I was inspired by the social impact of this woman who had bionics that saved the world. And so I feel now that that's what I'm doing. I'm taking my intelligence along with my robotic systems and I am having a direct impact on children's lives.
- I am the person that came from another country trying to figure out a better life in a different place, and then took that little seed and expanded it to taking the entire human species into the next level of exploration.
I grew up in Colombia, in Cali. I lived there until I was 17. Growing up, it was a responsibility of the woman to make sure that my dad, my uncle, my grandfather were happy when they would come home, food was on the table, everything was taken care of. My mom was actually the smart one. She was in med school when she met my dad. And then she got pregnant with me and she dropped out. My parents got divorced when I turned 12. After that happened, my mom had nothing. No money. We didn't even have food. And we boil an egg, and then we cut it in half. And that was our lunch that day. I remember just laying down on the grass and looking at the sky and thinking something has to be out there that is better than this, some other species that treats themselves better or values people better.
I literally thought, what's the hardest thing a human being can do? If I could be out there as an astronaut and represent humanity, there was no more bigger honor than that. And when you, Dad, see my life, you're going to realize that we can bring-- we women bring something to the table.
I was the first immigrant Hispanic woman on the program. l got to meet astronauts. I got to meet CEOs of companies. None of them looked like me. And among all of the people that talked to us, there was only one woman. But as I was talking to them, l realized we had a lot of things in common, the way that they thought about the universe and exploration, the way that they thought about humanity. I found my people is kind of what I felt.
Once you come out of the launch vehicle, telecom takes over. Can you hear me, right, is the question that you're wondering, can you hear the Rover? A small job with a lot of impact. Multiple times when we did multiple hours and weeks of testing, it wasn't going smooth enough, and you're wondering, I hope this is working. The fact that we got the first picture, I could not believe we had done it. This is Mars. This is Mars. I am one of the first 30 people in the world to see these pictures of Mars.
The fact that we actually found out that Mars was, at some point, habitable, that leads to the next question: Can we actually find some evidence that there was, at some point, life on Mars? We're going to take a sample with Mars 2020 and put it on a tube to be ready to be returned back to Earth. All of those missions are also thinking about human exploration, all the little pieces that at least we need to figure out for us to even conceive the idea of sending a human. As a little girl, I saw the women in my family give up a lot It gave me the tenacity that I needed to say, I'm not going to give up on my dream. I want to be out there looking back in, showing my family that women have value. That women matter.