Saturday, July 11, 2020

Column: Katherine, what is it like to touch the stars?

February 28, 2020
Photo by Courtney McKown | The State News

Katherine, what is it like to touch the stars? I wish I could’ve asked you in person.

The New York Times wrote about you so beautifully this week: “They asked Katherine Johnson for the moon, and she gave it to them.” The words are so fitting to describe what you did for all of us. The human race is indebted to you. 

And the men, known well by the history books as the heroes in our race to the stars? They owe you their lives. 

Alan Shepard, first American in space. John Glenn, first American in orbit. Neil Armstrong, first human to walk upon the moon’s surface. Their success came at the scratch of your pencil and at your mind's mathematical genius.

It pains me to think we almost forgot about you — how history could have failed you and countless others who also loved the concept of reaching a new frontier. We only reached it because of your dedication. Your courage. Your perseverance in the face of the cruelest adversity. They made a film about you, but I think even the most poignant parts of it can’t quite capture your undefeatable spirit. 

Quite frankly, we didn’t deserve the use of your unbounded mind. This nation, full of people with hearts so deeply rooted in racism and misogyny — at the time, and unfortunately still now — doesn’t deserve the milestones you gave us.

I kept in mind your calculations and your sacrifices as I walked the halls of NASA this past summer. I read the biography written about you, supplied to me by two gracious engineers with whom I lived during the time I spent at Glenn Research Center.

I thought not only about you, either, which I think you’d be pleased to hear. More names filled my mind.

I thought of Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, your fellow mathematicians at Mother Langley.

I thought of Bessie Coleman. Sally Ride. Mae Jemison. Margaret Hamilton. Valentina Tereshkova. Christa McAuliffe. Judith Resnik. Sunita Williams. Ellen Ochoa. Liu Yang. Serena Auñón-Chancellor.

The list goes on. It is growing.

I saw your spirit every day. The women with whom I worked at NASA reflected it. Seeing their drive and hearing their words of encouragement instilled in me a sense of agency I’ve gotten nowhere else. Nothing I say or do could ever thank them enough for that.

We learned about your passing earlier this week. I haven’t cried so hard in months. As for me? I’m no mathematician, scientist or engineer. But I want to spend the rest of my life writing about people like you. 

I want to write about the “firsts.” I want to tell the world about the milestones and the breakthroughs, like the first all-women spacewalk that took place on Oct. 18, 2019. Of all the birthday presents I’ve ever asked for, that was the greatest one I've gotten — seeing Christina and Jessica emerge from the confines of the International Space Station together. 

I long to tell the world about your accomplishments, your grit, your willingness to sit down and work through even the most complex problems.

I want children to read about you and be gripped with inspiration about what you overcame — and how they, too, can overcome the obstacles they face.

As humankind reaches new frontiers — like putting a woman on the moon or Mars, at long last — I'll be there, working my hardest to make sure you and other women won't be hidden or forgotten.

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