Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson was a NASA mathematician for the Mercury program, the Apollo 11 mission, up through the Space Shuttle program. She famously was asked by astronaut John Glenn to double-check the calculations for his first orbit around the Earth which had been previously calculated by a computer for the first time in history. She is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Number 41 in an ongoing series celebrating remarkable women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Fun fact: It is widely believed that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin encountered landed UFOs observing the first human mission to the moon on July 20, 1969 which was dubbed Apollo 11. During the live broadcast being watched by many in America, a nail-biting 2 minutes went by in which the broadcast lost signal and there was no audio or picture of the astronauts on the moon. It is widely speculated that during the lost 2 minutes, astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin were engaging Houston in dialogue on a hidden NASA radio channel about the UFOs that were observing them from a crater on the lunar surface.
The NBC show “Timeless” - a time travel show with the twist that time is in no way protected and the characters can and do change history - did an episode called “Space Race.”
The episode blurb was “As the historic Apollo 11 mission unfolds, the team needs to summon courage as they reach out to an unsung hero to thwart Flynn’s scheme.
Flynn is the show’s antagonist, who keeps trying to change history while the heroes try to fix it (one of the fascinating things about this show is we don’t really know Flynn’s motivation, although it’s starting to be revealed now).
The unsung hero was, of course, Katherine Johnson. She was very ably played by Nadine Ellis.
And when they got back to the “present” (which is an unspecified time in the future), she was no longer a forgotten mathematician but “NASA’s first female flight director.”
Thank you NBC for highlighting this brilliant woman to people who wouldn’t care about “Hidden Figures” but were just watching an action-y drama.
I’m quite liking this show, it’s a little bit American-centric, but forgivably so. At the start they were dealing with America’s race problems in a corny and over-done manner, but it’s getting better. (They deal with race primarily through the lens of Rufus Carlin, who flies the time machine and is a qualified engineer - the guy who’s best in a fight is the white guy, which I always like to see).
AhhhHHHHHH oh my god ok this is going to get long because I have favorite Apollo missions for different reasons. Thank you for asking this question because goddamn I love the Apollo space program!!!
So, I wouldn’t be a ~*~real fan~*~ without talking about Apollo 11, the one mission Apollo was really for (land someone on the moon and return them safely to Earth before the decade ends like literally JFK gave NASA a small heart attack when he gave that address at Rice University holy shit NASA still had a lot of shit to do before getting someone to the moon)
Here’s Apollo 11′s mission patch; the eagle on it represents America and how we were the first to land on the Moon. The olive branch represents how this accomplishment was meant to be a peaceful accomplishment, rather than a military one (even though the Space Race was caused by US-Soviet tensions during the Cold War anyway here’s the patch):
Here are some pictures from Apollo 11! :D
The first picture is the Apollo 11 Crew: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. Only Armstrong and Aldrin actually walked on the moon, but Collins was super important because he stayed in the Apollo 11 Command Module (called Columbia; the Lunar Module was called Eagle).
The second picture is the Saturn V rocket, an absolute beast of a machine. She is still the most powerful rocket NASA has used in any space program. You need a rocket that big to even think of leaving low-Earth orbit. I love her.
The last two pictures are both of Buzz Aldrin, as Armstrong was the first person on the Moon; he became the first human to walk on the Moon on July 21, 1969. Nobody could take a picture of Armstrong going down the ladder. The last picture is incredibly famous and truly iconic. You can actually see Armstrong reflected in Aldrin’s face mask!
Fun fact! The reason you can’t see any stars in the pictures on the Moon is not because the Moon landings were faked :/ it’s because of the low exposure of the cameras. The stars are there; the pictures just can’t show that because of the camera’s low exposure. Low exposure means it can capture relatively bright surfaces (like the Moon!) easily but not dimmer surfaces (like distant stars).
Ok so Apollo 11 is a definite favorite for obvious reasons! However, as I’m an aspiring aerospace engineer, I have to talk about Apollo 13.
Oh Apollo 13. It was almost disastrous. The mission was a ‘failed success’ as many people say; the crew never reached the Moon, but they weren’t killed either. Considering how serious malfunctions are in outer space, it was a feat of engineering, piloting and circumstance that got these guys back to Earth.
Here’s the mission patch for Apollo 13:
The three horses pulling the Sun represent Apollo’s chariot from Greek mythology (as in Apollo Program…Apollo…yeah). Ex Luna, Scientia is Latin for “From the Moon, Knowledge” aka the Moon missions are a scientific and learning based endeavor etc.
Here are some pictures from Apollo 13:
Alright so that’s a lot more pictures than Apollo 11, but for good reason.
So it’s funny how for every space launch literally ever, there’s always one thing that goes wrong (in most cases, more than one).
For Apollo 11, the crew had issues with their lunar descent. Aldrin also broke something aboard the LM before ascent, meaning that if they hadn’t fixed it there was a good chance they would have been stranded there.
But the thing about those errors is that they were correctable by the crew.
However, in the case of Apollo 13, that just wasn’t possible.
I’m sure all of you have seen Apollo 13, so I’m just going to summarize what exactly happened: oxygen tank #2 blew up. In the top right picture, you can kind of see the carnage.
Thus we have one of the greatest lines from space flight from astronaut Jim Lovell: “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” Notice it’s not “have a problem”, considering the oxygen tank isn’t still somehow exploding. The problem occurred and now it’s time for possible solutions.
You can’t recover from an oxygen tank exploding. Thus, the mission to land on the Moon had to be scrapped. The only important thing now was getting these guys back to Earth safely.
I’m not going to talk about every single issue that plagued Apollo 13 because there were a bunch, but I’m going to talk about one specifically.
Because it’s all about engineering!
Since the Command Module (CM) was inhabitable due to its lack of oxygen, the crew moved to the Lunar Module (LM). Luckily, the LM’s design parameters meant for it to detach from the CM. So it had to have its own oxygen in its descent tank, ascent tanks and portable oxygen backpacks, along with some emergency bottles.
Unfortunately, though oxygen wasn’t a problem, CO2 buildup was. And the LM wasn’t meant for use by three astronauts for more than 45 hours (its original design parameter was for descent, ascent and housing two astronauts plus samples for their time on the Moon). It had to now survive for 90 hours of continuous use by three people. That’s a lot of CO2 being exhaled. CO2 poisoning was imminent.
And considering NASA is a government organization, oversight happens. So the crew had enough lithium hydroxide canisters (which remove CO2), but the canisters from the CM were square. And the ones in the LM were round.
You think this wouldn’t happen, but it did. I would hate to be someone in the room when Mission Control realized that.
Here comes engineering: how to fit a square peg in a round hole. Remember that scene from Apollo 13, where the engineers are given what the astronauts have available and are expected to find a solution? That’s engineering. The middle two pics are engineering. Hell yeah.
Engineering is finding a solution from the bullshit. And luckily, there was a lot of bullshit for Mission Control to work with. They fixed the CO2 problem.
That’s how Apollo 13 got home. The bottom two pictures are of Apollo 13′s splashdown in the Pacific Ocean aka when Mission Control cheered and shook hands and did dramatic ‘we did it!’ celebrations. The last picture is the crew, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, aboard the USS Iwo Jima after a successful recovery on April 17, 1970.
And last but not least, I have to address Apollo 8, for its impact on all humankind, not just Americans or Soviets or any other nationality.
This is the picture that I think is most significant in all of the Apollo Program:
It’s titled Earthrise and was shot on December 24,1968 during Apollo 8. It was the first color picture of Earth taken from the Moon. (The first picture of the Earth from the Moon was taken by the unmanned Lunar Orbiter 1 in 1966; however, this was not in color).
Apollo 8 was the first manned mission to the Moon. Its mission was to orbit the Moon and then return to Earth. It was the next step to get to Apollo 11, to actually land people on the Moon.
I’ve always thought this picture was profound, mostly because it shows how alone Earth is in the universe and thus how special she is. Again, there are not stars shown in the picture because of the lack of exposure, but that makes the picture so much more intense.
That’s all we are. A pale blue dot, surrounded by vast amounts of nothing.
What a new way to think about our place on Earth and in the universe. It revolutionized the way people thought about themselves and each other. That’s why Apollo 8 is so significant to me and why it will always be one of my favorites.
This got super long, so I’ll cut it off here! Apollo 11, Apollo 13 and Apollo 8 are my favorite missions; Apollo 11 for its contributions to space flight and discovery, Apollo 13 for its use of engineering and Apollo 8 for its effect on the world.
But to be honest, I love every single mission from the Apollo Program. Their impacts are still felt today as we look to Mars for the future.