In 1958, the NACA officially becomes the headquarters for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The American space program begins. The Space Task Group includes engineers from the Flight Research Division and PARD. They name the first manned space program Project Mercury. Project Mercury’s goals are to investigate the human ability to function in space and to bring both man and spacecraft back to Earth safely.
Now the next stage of the NACA truly begins, with the aerospace industry’s focus shifting from planes to rockets and space and towards a new goal—not global military dominance, but dominance of space. While the US focuses on its international and interplanetary goals, it remains blind to some problems of racial and gender discrimination within its borders.
While Virginians feel pride at the fact that they will host the team that sends the first men into space, this is also the year when Virginia’s public schools close. The state’s governor chains shut the doors of any schools that attempt to integrate under Brown vs. Board of Education. Thirteen thousand students find themselves sitting at home. As the barriers at NASA continue to be erased, the children of the employees there attend segregated schools.
The very same goals NASA plans to pursue are undermined by the state’s refusal to provide an equal education to all children, regardless of race. By shutting children of color out of white schools that offer more resources and better opportunities, the state reduces its own potential, even as the NACA expands its reach and its goals.
Katherine, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan push their children to excel in school and concentrate on getting into college. They also keep up with social functions and appear regularly in the newspaper as models of upwardly mobile and professional black families.
The black women at Langley do what they can to maintain their livelihoods and secure success for their children, knowing that both remain precarious and the future is by no means guaranteed.
At work, Katherine tackles Project Mercury with her colleagues by breaking it down into its constituent parts. Airplanes have evolved since 1915 from awkward machines to more sleek ones. Spaceship research shows that the shape of airplanes won’t work for the extreme heat caused when rockets pass through the friction of the atmosphere. A blunt, cork-shaped body works better. Astronauts are chosen, in part, based on their ability to fit into such a small space. Each also has to be a qualified test pilot under the age of 40. Soon “the Mercury Seven” astronauts have been selected. They go from being anonymous military men to becoming the most famous people in the world.
Just as Katherine once helped design planes, now she’s designing spaceships. And just as she helped change flight safety forever (recall her work on the crash caused by the propeller plane) she begins the hard work of designing manned spaceships. Her central role in this trajectory over time is important because it points to the direct impact she’s had on research normally associated with white male physicists.
Katherine helps calculate rocket trajectories into space. The workload is heavy. She works with her team members to do computing runs and she figures out where the astronauts have to take off from to achieve orbital flight safely. Her analytical geometry skills help her play an important role in the mission. Once again, she is in the right place at the right time.
Katherine again ensures her own success through her extraordinary abilities and her natural good fortune and luck.
The Space Task Group completes its work. Katherine gets to complete and put her name on the research report in 1959. Her paper is the first report to come out of Langley’s Aerospace Mechanics Division by a female author. Around this time, she also agrees to marry a man named Jim Johnson. She changes her name to Katherine Goble Johnson.
Katherine’s research paper marks yet another huge accomplishment in a series of accomplishments, but she maintains her life outside of work too. For her, getting remarried is of no less importance.