“They needed engineers, and I said, ‘Hmm, I’m not an engineer, that’s not my background. And maybe I shouldn’t.’ But then an angel on my shoulder said, ‘Hey! Maybe you should,’” she says, over crab cakes and fries at Jersey City’s fabled VIP Diner.
“So I took my handkerchief and said, ‘Get behind me, devil!’” Johnson filled out the application forms, got hired, and began working in the launch systems branch at the Boeing Company, a lead contractor with NASA to build the Saturn V rocket at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
She performed data input for vehicle piece impact trajectories. In plain English, she tested where pieces of a rocket would fall after a launch.
You may think you don’t know what the Saturn V is. But you definitely know the words, “One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” uttered by Astronaut Neil Armstrong as he made the first-ever lunar landing, on the Apollo 11 spacecraft July 20, 1969. The Saturn V propelled him and his fellow astronauts into space.
“It was a very exciting day,” Johnson remembers. “We were in the console room, and we saw the flight when he landed, and everybody went out of their minds. When he stepped on the moon and made his comment, we literally leaped for joy.”
America would not soon forget her role, and those of her colleagues, in helping score a haymaker against the U.S.S.R. in the Cold War.
Johnson received commendations in March 1969 for 20 successful impact trajectory runs in 20 attempts. Her name is on the Apollo/Saturn V Roll of Honor, which can be seen in the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institute. In June, Plainfield, NJ, (her hometown) honored her for her work. The recent movie Hidden Figures, about three African-American women mathematicians who worked at NASA before Johnson, put their role on the front burner. Johnson isn’t represented in the movie, but her place in that pantheon is secure.
In the Beginning…
Johnson grew up in a working-class family in Savannah, Georgia, with three sisters and two brothers.
Their father came home from work each afternoon at 4:11. When he touched down, the kids had better have things in order, working on homework or chores. It was textbook Southern rearing.
“You had better be doing what you were supposed to be doing,” Johnson says. “My dad didn’t take no stuff.”
She credits her drive to this parenting.
She speaks with a slight Southern drawl that stays with you long after she finishes talking, conjuring memories of Uncle Phil’s mom on The Fresh Prince.
Her parents “pushed us so we could be the best we could be, and we could be anything we chose to be,” she says. “So even though we came from meager beginnings, you could do what you wanna do. So what’s your job? My job was to go to school, and bring home good grades. They instilled that in us at a young age.”
In Johnson’s home, “you didn’t have to go to college if you didn’t want to, but if you didn’t want to go to college, you had to get a job, even if you had to press some hair.”
But Johnson wanted to go to college. She loved math. Seventh-grade teacher and mentor Walter B. Simmons bolstered that passion and pushed her.
“He asked me at that time, ‘Is this something that you wanna do? Because we need women in this field. We need women in the field of science,’” Johnson recalls. “And you seem to have a grasp for the mathematics.’”
After graduating from Tompkins High School with valedictorian honors, Johnson entered Talladega on a full scholarship (which she lost due to poor grades, but worked fervently to regain). She graduated with a mathematics degree before working with Boeing full time, in the same year.
That Other Challenge
A young black woman in the 1960s South faced huge obstacles. With voter disenfranchisement, massive police brutality, and Jim Crow laws, African Americans were target practice for white racists. Not much has changed.
Johnson fought back.
“A lot of things were still going on,” she says. “I was fortunate to be able to go to college during that time, because a lot of students who graduated high school with me had problems and were put in jail because of the marches. We were in NAACP meetings, sit-ins. We did that, but I was fortunate to not have been arrested.”
But that hostile atmosphere did not penetrate Boeing. “We had a diverse group,” Johnson says. “There was still stuff going on outside, but in our workplace, we never had that kind of problem. At that time, we wanted to put a man on the moon. And that’s exactly what we did. We had to work to that end. My counterparts were helpful.”
After Boeing’s contract with NASA ended in 1969, Johnson considered her options. “I could’ve remained in the field, but I wanted to do something with my math,” she says. “So what came about at that time? The Computer Age opened up. And I stepped right into it.”
Johnson started working for biopharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s IT Department in New York City in 1970.
“I’ve been able to go from job to job, and I know a lot of young people can’t do that today,” she acknowledges. “Things have dried up.”
She retired from Pfizer in 1996. But that retirement didn’t last long. In 2000, she began a full-time teaching position at Jersey City’s Chubb Institute, after teaching at a technical college in Plainfield.
Today, Chubb is known as the Branford Hall Career Institute. Teaching was Johnson’s backup plan, but now she’s a full-time computer instructor at the school.
“It’s a sorry person who has only one job, right?” she says. “And I love teaching.” At Talladega she’d done some teaching, but at the time the Boeing engineering job held more excitement for her.
Passing the Torch
Today, she teaches computer networking and security, network-plus certification, hardware, computer software, computer forensics, applications, and servers.
Hidden Figures opened last year. The film tells the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, who did computer engineering at NASA during the Space Age, before Johnson appeared on the scene.
Starring Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, and Taraji P. Henson, who plays Cookie on the show Empire, the film garnered a 92-percent average on Rotten Tomatoes, rave reviews, and a SAG Award earlier this year.
The exposure has been positive. Her daughter Tracey posted some of her mother’s honors on Facebook. Branford’s president added a program about NASA during her church’s Black History Month celebration, to honor Johnson.
“Everybody just stood up and applauded,” Johnson says. “I came through, and I spoke to the congregation. I felt like Cookie receiving the NAACP Image Award.”
That same month, Branford gave Johnson an award for excellence for her NASA work. With retirement looming, Johnson is happy her life’s story included the NASA chapter. “Who would’ve thought?”—JCM .