Space Sunday: the mathematician of NASA

Tribute to Katherine Johnson. Credit: Breen, San Diego Union-Tribune

So often, when we think of the early years of US space flight, we think of steely-eyed, square-jawed test pilots supported in their missions by male, bespectacled and white-shirted scientists and flight controllers, their breast pockets lined with pens of various colours, all with similar haircuts and staring earnestly at computer screens, headsets allowing them to talk in clipped, precise terms with one another in acronym-laden sentences.

While both were very much the public persona for NASA, even becoming something of a cliché in television and film, they were only in fact the tip of the iceberg of the multitude of talents that formed NASA and made its missions possible. In particular, the image of the “nerds” of mission control has tended to very much overshadow the role played by many women in getting America both into orbit and to the Moon.

One of the foremost of these women was Creola Katherine Coleman, better known as Katherine Johnson, who sadly passed away on February 24th, 2020 at the age of 101. As a mathematician who spent 35 years working for NASA and its precursor, her calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the first US flights into space during the Mercury programme, and her work also encompassed the Apollo programme and the space shuttle.

Katherine Johnson, circa 1960. Credit NASA

Katherine Johnson was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the youngest of four children born to Joylette Coleman, a teacher, and her husband Joshua Coleman, a lumberman, farmer, and handyman. She showed a natural ability with mathematics from an early age. However, as her home county of Greenbrier did not offer public schooling for African-American students past the eighth grade (13-14 years of age), her parents enrolled her, at the age of 10, at the high school on the campus of West Virginia State College.

Following her graduation at 14, she attended West Virginia State, where she took every course in mathematics offered by the college and studied under chemist and mathematician Angie Turner King, and William Schieffelin Claytor, the third African-American to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics In fact, Claytor was so impressed with Johnson, he added new courses just for Katherine. Graduating summa cum laude in 1937 at the age of 18 and with degrees in mathematics and French, Johnson took on a teaching job at a black public school in Marion, Virginia.

She returned to studying mathematics after marrying her first husband, James Goble in 1939, becoming the first African-American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University.

Johnson’s association with aerospace commenced in 1953 when she joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), joining the Guidance and Navigation Department at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, Virginia. Here, she initially worked in a team of women supervised by mathematician Dorothy Vaughan, carrying out a range of mathematical analyses of aircraft flight dynamics, wind handling and more. She was then reassigned to the Guidance and Control Division of Langley’s Flight Research Division.

At first she [Johnson] worked in a pool of women performing maths calculations. Katherine has referred to the women in the pool as virtual “computers who wore skirts”. Their main job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other precise mathematical tasks. Then one day, Katherine (and a colleague) were temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team. Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male bosses and colleagues to the extent that, “they forgot to return me to the pool”. While the racial and gender barriers were always there, Katherine says she ignored them. Katherine was assertive, asking to be included in editorial meetings (where no women had gone before). She simply told people she had done the work and that she belonged.

– Oral history archive at by the US National Visionary Leadership Project

Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, Langley Research Centre, Virginia, inaugurated in 2019 and named in honour of Katherine Johnson. Credit: NASA

With the formation of NASA, Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist, moving to the agency’s Spacecraft Controls Branch, a department in which she continued to work through until her retirement from the agency in 1986. Her first major project was calculating the launch window and flight trajectory for Freedom 7, the sub-orbital flight that made Alan Shepard the first American in space on May 5th, 1961. In particular, her trajectory calculations – manually produced – ensured the recovery teams were on hand when Shepherd splashed down. In addition, to her calculation for flights, Johnson plotted backup navigation charts for the astronauts in case of electronic failures aboard their craft.

Such was her reputation and prowess, Johnson was key to ensuring NASA could transition from human computers to electronic computers. In this role, when John Glenn was preparing to make NASA’s first orbital flight around the Earth, he refused to fly unless and until Johnson had personally verified all of the electronic flight calculations for the mission. Despite the greater complexity in orbital flight calculations, Johnson did so by comparing the electronically-produced calculations  with her own manual calculations that she produced over the course of a day and a half – a feat that passed almost unnoticed in the pages of history.

In this respect, Johnson – although living in a state where segregation on the basis of colour was still very real (despite NASA’s somewhat more relaxed view of things) – would later state that she found sexism in the workplace the bigger problem (Glenn, for example, called for her to review the data relating to his flight simply as “the girl”).

We needed to be assertive as women in those days – assertive and aggressive – and the degree to which we had to be that way depended on where you were. I had to be. In the early days of NASA women were not allowed to put their names on the reports – no woman in my division had had her name on a report. I was working with Ted Skopinski and he wanted to leave and go to Houston … but Henry Pearson, our supervisor – he was not a fan of women – kept pushing him to finish the report we were working on. Finally, Ted told him, “Katherine should finish the report, she’s done most of the work anyway.” So Ted left Pearson with no choice; I finished the report and my name went on it, and that was the first time a woman in our division had her name on something.

– Katherine Johnson quoted in Black Women Scientists in the United States, 1999.

President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Katherine Johnson in 2015. Credit: UPI

As NASA shifted gears to achieve President Kennedy’s goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”, Johnson threw herself into the task of making sure it could happen. She would arrive at the office early in the morning, work through until late in the afternoon, then go home to look after her three daughters – born to her late first husband, and living with her and her second husband, James Johnson – then returning to NASA after the children were in bed, maintaining a schedule of 14- to 16-hour days.

These hours enabled her to carry out a critical role in calculating Apollo 11’s flight to the Moon and back and – most crucially of all – she calculated the exact time that the lunar module ascent stage needed to lift-off from the lunar surface in order to successfully rendezvous with the Command and Service Module, a feat she would come to regard as her proudest accomplishment.

During this time, she also embarked on co-authoring a series of papers specifically for the Apollo programme (as part of some 26 science and mathematics papers she wrote while at the agency). These were intended to guide mission teams and astronauts alike through scenarios in which various computer systems on the spacecraft might fail. One of these papers, produced in 1967 with Al Hamer, detailed alternative methods of celestial navigation in the event of a failure with Apollo’s on-board navigation systems, and was pulled into use in the Apollo13 rescue in April 1970.

Everybody [in the Apollo programme] was concerned about them getting there. We were concerned about them getting back.

– Katherine Johnson, 2010, discussing her co-authored approach to one-star navigation,
tested by Jim Lovell during Apollo 8 (1968), and which formed a part of the Apollo 13 recovery efforts (1970)

Following Apollo, Johnson moved to the space shuttle programme, again playing a key role in preparations for the 1981 first flight of the original space-capable orbiter vehicle, Columbia, and worked on orbital requirements for the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS) project, which would later be renamed Landsat. Additionally, in leading up to her retirement in 1986, she turned her mind to plans for missions to Mars.

Following her official retirement, Johnson spent her later years encouraging students to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), talking about her work at NASA and remaining a strong advocate of human space flight. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, while in 2016 her work, and that of her fellow African-American women at NASA was charted in the 2016 biographical movie Hidden Figures. In that same year NASA dedicated a purpose-built unit, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Centre, in her honour. A second facility, also in Virginia, was renamed in her honour in 2019. The is responsible for developing and verifying software crucial to NASA missions. Both are fitting tributes to one of NASA’s pathfinders.

Katherine Johnson at 97. Credit: unknown

I found what I was looking for at Langley. This was what a research mathematician did. I went to work every day for 33 years happy. Never did I get up and say, “I don’t want to go to work.”

– Katherine Johnson, commenting on her time at NASA

Katherine Johnson died at a retirement home in Newport News on February 24, 2020, at age 101, she is survived by her three daughters, six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Her legacy is one that has carried humans into space and to the Moon, and paved the way for modern human space flight.

Time travel, coming of age and adventures in Second Life

Seanchai Library

It’s time to highlight another week of storytelling in Voice by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library. As always, all times SLT, and events are held at the Library’s home unless otherwise indicated. Note that the schedule below may be subject to change during the week, please refer to the Seanchai Library website for the latest information through the week.

Sunday, March 1st 13:30: Tea-Time Special: Death on the Nile

First published in 1937, Death on he Nile is one of Agatha Christie’s most famous and enduring Hercule Poirot murder mysteries. The book has been the subject of multiple theatrical, film and television adaptations, most of which had by necessity condensed elements of this tale of love, jealously, and betrayal to more readily fit the requirements of their format.

Now, Seanchai Library continues to present the opportunity to enjoy the story in full – and within a setting inspired by the novel, as Corwyn Allen, Da5id Abbot, Kayden Oconnell, Gloriana Maertens, and Caledonia Skytower bring Christie’s characters once more to life for us to enjoy.

The Karnak – Death on the Nile

So, why not join Poirot as he cruises aboard the river steamer Karnak in a trip along the Nile – although a tour of the sights is unlikely to be high on his priorities given murder has now claimed three victims, and theft appears to have joined the voyage!

Monday, March 2nd 19:00: The Ugly Little Boy

Gyro Muggins reads a tale that started life as a short story by Isaac Asimov, and was later expanded into a full length novel by Asimov writing in collaboration with Robert Silverberg.

A 21st century time travel experiment results in a Neanderthal boy being pulled from his time. The intention is to study the boy and understand how his kind lived. However because of the potential for time paradoxes, the boy must be kept in a within a stasis module, a place physically separated from modern time; but he must still be cared for. So the company behind the experiment hires a children’s nurse, Edith Fellowes, to look after him.

Initially horrified by the child, Edith comes to forms a bond with him, discovering he is intelligent and capable of both learning and love. However, to Stasis – the company behind the experiment – the boy is little more than a commodity to be observed and with a story to be sold to the media. As such, he is only of value for as long as there is public interest in his story. When that fades, the company determines the child must be returned to his own time, his place to be taken by a subject from another era. But Edith knows that, thanks to all she has taught him, his own time is no longer a place he is equipped to survive within, and determines she must take action to protect him.

Tuesday, March 3rd 19:00: Very Far Away from Anywhere

Ursula le Guin remains best know for her intelligent science fiction and fantasy stories. However, Willow Moonfire brings us one of her books that steps away from that genre entirely.

If you’d like a story about how I won my basketball letter and achieved fame, love, and fortune, don’t read this. I don’t know what I achieved in the six months I’m going to tell you about. I achieved something, all right, but I think it may take me the rest of my life to find out what.

So begins a moving coming-of age tale, centred on 17-year-old Owen, who is in the middle of his senior year in high school. A loner and intellectual, Owen is an introspective young man who hasn’t found any deep connections to anyone; only his interest in science offers a point of focus for him. While he does spend time with his two closest friends, is a member of various groups at school and enjoys sports, he looks upon that side of his life as a fiction, no more real to him than the pretend utopian world of Thorn, a place he created in his imagination whilst a child.

But Thorn is no longer a place of escape for him; it has become beyond his reach as he moves towards adulthood, and he must now face turning the “fiction” of the physical world into a reality in which he can function and move beyond the potential breakdown he might otherwise face, escape the threat of repeating the lives of his parents and take control of his destiny.

Wednesday, March 4th, 19:00: The Phantom Tollbooth

Finn Zeddmore reads Norton Juster’s fantasy adventure for younger readers.

For Milo, everything is a bore and all activities little more than a waste of time. Then one day he arrives home in his usual state of disinterest, only to find a package waiting for him. He has no idea where it has come from or who might have sent it, but is clearly intended for him, given the label. Opening it, he discovers a small tollbooth and a map of “the Lands Beyond,” illustrating the Kingdom of Wisdom.

Reading the limited instructions – that warn him to have a destination from the map in mind – and thinking the package to be some kind of game, he sets the tollbooth up, decides Dictionopolis should be his destination, and propels the accompanying little car through the tollbooth.

Immediately he finds himself driving an actual car through a city that is clearly not his own. Here he discovers he must remain focused, lest his thoughts wander, and his journey wanders as well; a lesson he only discovers when he does daydream and finds himself in the Doldrums.

Also as he travel and meets new friends, so he also discovers something else: life is far from boring or dull; it actually offers much to be discovered.

Thursday, March 5th: 19:00 Stag Hunt

Shandon Loring reads Laura DeLuca’s 2013 novel of history and pagan times.

In ancient Britannia, Eartha’s brother Balen has been in love with Princess Galiene since they were children. Upon the death of the High King, the tribesmen of the realm vie for the throne, and with it, the hand of the fair princess. They do so but hunting the King Stag: for the warrior who brings down the stag will be named defender of the land.

Balen enters the hunt in a desperate attempt to show himself worthy of Galiene’s attention. But he has a rival who is determined to keep him and Galiene apart. And so with the fates her brother and her dearest friend, and even her very nation hanging in the balance, Eartha must do the unthinkable to ensure her brother’s victory in the hunt.

Also in Kitely –

An Emergent centre of art in Second Life

Emergent Gallery, with Ilrya Chardin’s Art of War, foreground

Emergent is the name Ilrya Chardin has given to her latest gallery space in Second Life. Occupying a 1/4 full region minimally landscaped to present an setting pleasing to the eye and without overwhelming the viewer, the gallery presents a mix of indoor and outdoor spaces for the display of 2D and 3D art, and through until March 7th, 2020 (so I am getting to it on the late side), Ilyra is joined by four of Second Life’s more established and recognised artists: Sisi Beidermann, Eli Medier and Ladmilla, and PatrickofIreland.

When I first  encountered Ilyra Chardin’s art a good few years ago now, she was very much focused Second Life landscape images, capturing the places she has visited and offering considered reflections on their looks. Since then, she has considerably broadened her scope, up to and including a move to 3D art.

Emergent Gallery, Ilrya Chardin

The latter, in the form of Mesh sculptures, is very much displayed in the grounds and courtyards of the gallery, It ranges from quirky characters, each with a story to tell, through more brain-poking pieces, by way of abstract elements. I admit to being particularly drawn to The Art of War, which as well as cleverly drawing on Sun Tzu’s most famous (and oft-quoted) work, also reminds us that chess isn’t the only game of strategy that uses an 8×8 chequered board as its field of combat (although draughts doesn’t have quite such an astronomical number of potential game variations).

Sharing some of the walls of the outdoor spaces and present in the first of the gallery’s indoor spaces as a number of Ilrya’s 2D digital art pieces that are both worthy of examination and – in the case of those in the hall – point the way to her the larger hall, where her guests art displaying their art, commencing with Sisi Beidermann.

Emergent Gallery: Sisi Biedermann

I confess to being and admirer of Sisi’s digital art – as I’ve mentioned numerous times in these pages. She has become a master in the art of digital composition, presenting original pieces beautiful and most subtly layered, to present art that is instantly captures the eye, carrying us to marvellous worlds born of her imagination. This is instantly discovered in the first three images, sitting to the left as you enter the main hall. The Maid, The Boy on the Scooter and Ancient Beauty all offer black-and-white portraits from a bygone era, each carefully composited with soft-toned digital overlays to present three wonderfully evocative pieces. With her drawings, paintings and layered fantasy pieces also on offer, Sisi offers visitors a tempting look into her work.

Eli Medlier and Ladmilla are also no strangers to these pages. Describing himself as an “occasional poet in Second Life”, Eli has a gift with words he tends to share with images produced by his SL partner, Ladmilla, although looking at his website, it is clear he is no slouch when it comes to visual art, his photographs and images there as captivating as his poetry.

Emergent Gallery: Eli and Ladmilla

For this exhibition, he once again shares he words with photographs by the equally talented Ladmilla, an artist who has a unique and captivating way with visual artistry, and so makes an ideal partner to illustrate Eli’s words. In fact, so entwined are their imaginations that when viewing their work, it is possible to imagine each being inspired by the other, such that both words may have given rise to image, and equally, image may have given rise to image.

Similarly, PatrickofIreland’s art never fails to capture attention. Often thematic in presentation, his work is broad in style and frequently enmeshes narrative and social commentary.

Here, both indoors and out on the upper terrace, he offers a truly engaging mix of art that illustrates all of this, with images bordering on the abstract (Dawn of a New Era) and social commentary (Socially Connected) to fabulous fantasy pieces that stand entirely on their own to others that hint at possible hidden layering – looking at Empty Nest, for example, I found my imagination poking me with several narratives up to and including a play on the fall of Lucifer from grace – the fingers exhibiting claw like extensions as he is transformed into the devil, his angelic wings similarly transformed into what appears to be the fragments of a broken nest, symbolising all he has lost, sliding from his shoulders and down his plummeting back, more shards caught in the air through which he is falling…

Emergent: PatrickofIreland

An engaging, rich exhibition which, as noted, will remain open through until Saturday, March 7th, 2020.

SLurl Details