Thursday, June 28, 2018

Go Figure! Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker

Katherine loved to count....

The steps to the church. the number of dishes and spoons she washed in the bright white sink.

The one thing she didn't count were the stars. Only a fool, she thought, would try to do that. Even so, the stars sparked her imagination.

Always curious, even as a toddler Katherine Johnson took to math. As a Kindergartner her test scores were so high that she was allowed to skip three grades. She finished eighth grade at age ten.

But back then America was legally segregated by race. Her town's high school wouldn't admit black students of any age.

"Count on me," said her dad.

Katherine's parents simply moved the family to another town where there was a high school for black students, and Katherine finished high school when she was fourteen. She graduated from college with a degree in mathematics when she was only 18, hoping to be a research mathematician, but the only job she could get at that time was as an elementary teacher.

But in 1950 the U.S began research on space flight and began hiring people with mathematics degrees by the thousands. Katherine found a job as a "computer," the term at the time for people who did paper-and-pencil mathematical calculations with NACA, the predecessor of NASA, and at last Katherine Johnson was able to do theoretical mathematics in the area of space flight. When NASA began the Gemini Project, Katherine finally found the kind of work she had dreamed of when as a child she had marveled at the stars.

Most of the "computers" were women. They were given tasks the men thought were boring. That didn't bother Katherine.

Katherine had not lost her curiosity for advanced mathematics, and her skills gained her such acceptance that when NASA was preparing for the first manned flight orbiting Earth, astronaut John Glenn insisted that only Katherine Johnson could approve the mathematical calculations for his flight.

And when an explosion on the Apollo spacecraft occurred on the dark side of moon and new calculations were required to get the astronauts and their craft back to earth, everyone agreed on the one person who could be trusted to do the number-crunching.

"Count on Katherine."

It was the toughest challenge of her life.

Katherine's calculations allowed the spacecraft's crew to make the maneuvers necessary to conserve their remaining fuel and make it safely back to earth. The success of the Apollo Project made a profound difference in the geo-political situation and gave impetus to all further space missions.

Helaine Becker's just-published picture book biography, Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 (Henry Holt, 2018), packs plenty of suspense into the story of the little girl who grew up to make a huge difference in the success of America's early space program. As one of the female "computers" for NASA, Katherine Johnson and other black mathematicians were celebrated in the award-winning 2017 movie, "Hidden Figures." Artist Dow Phumiruk depicts Katherine Johnson beautifully as a quietly confident young woman whose infinite curiosity, hard work, and devotion to her passion for mathematics made a huge difference for her country at a pivotal time in history. "An excellent biography that will inspire young readers, especially girls, to do what they love," says Kirkus Reviews.

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