About Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson passed away yesterday at the age of 101. Recognized from an early age for her brilliance, Katherine went on to become a pivotal mathematician for NASA as the space race led to the first manned missions and lunar landings. She continued working for NASA on the space shuttle and other technological advancements. Fearless in asking the kinds of probing questions that fueled her imagination and precise calculations and in standing up for her rights, Katherine was a trail-blazer for women and people of color. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Her influence and inspiration continue to shine, especially for children, through books like Counting on Katherine.
Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13
Written by Helaine Becker | Illustrated by Dow Phumiruk
Katherine may have been born counting. She counted every step she took and every step she climbed. She counted the dishes and silverware as she washed them, and although she may have wanted to count all the stars in the sky, she knew that was beyond anyone’s ability. “Even so, the stars sparked her imagination…. Katherine yearned to know as much as she could about numbers, about the universe—about everything!”
Katherine was so smart that she skipped three grades, even passing up her older brother. Katherine graduated from elementary school when she was 10 and was ready for high school, but “her town’s high school didn’t admit black students—of any age. Her father, though, said, “‘Count on me.’” He worked until the family could afford to move to another town where she could attend a black high school.
In high school, Katherine loved all of her classes, but her favorite subject was math. She wanted to become a research mathematician, “making discoveries about the number patterns that are the foundations of our universe.” But there were no jobs like that for women, so Katherine taught elementary school.
Then in the 1950s, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics began hiring new employees. When Katherine applied all the positions had been filled, but the next year she got a job. A few years later when NASA was formed, Katherine became what was known as a human “‘computer.’” She and the other computers––all of whom were women––calculated long series of numbers, contributing to the “space race.”
Katherine asked lots of questions about how high the rocket ship would go and how fast it would travel before beginning her calculations. Her job was to make sure that the earth and the rocket were in the same place when the rocket needed to land. Katherine’s calculations were so precise and her leadership so inspiring that she was promoted to Project Mercury, “a new program designed to send the first American astronauts into space.
The engineers and astronauts knew that the missions were going to be dangerous, and John Glenn, distrusting the computer-generated numbers, refused to fly until Katherine approved the numbers. “‘You can count on me,’” she told him. Glenn’s mission was successful and Katherine earned another promotion. Her new job was to “calculate the flight paths for Project Apollo—the first flight to the moon.” She calculated the trajectories that took Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 to the moon and back in 1969. But as Apollo 13 soared through space on its way to the moon, there was an explosion. There were questions about whether the spaceship could reach the moon or make it back to Earth.
Katherine was again called to make new calculations. In only a few hours, Katherine had a new flight plan that “would take the ship around the far side of the moon. From there, the moon’s gravity would act like a slingshot to zing the ship back to Earth.” But for the plan to work, the astronauts had to follow it exactly. There was no room for a mistake. Katherine and all of the NASA engineers waited nervously to find out if the plan would succeed. Finally, the astronauts reported that they were back on track. “Katherine Johnson had done it…. She was no longer the kid who dreamed of what lay beyond the stars. She was now a star herself.”
An Author’s Note following the text tells more about Katherine Johnson’s life and work, which went on to impact the space shuttle program and satellite projects.
Helaine Becker’s captivating storytelling captures Katherine Johnson’s genius for math and talent for applying it to even the most complex problems in a ground-breaking field. Her self-confidence, curiosity, and love of learning as well as her trajectory at NASA will impress readers, many of whom may also be dreaming of making a mark in new ways. A highlight of Becker’s text is her clear explanations of how Katherine’s calculations for NASA were used and what was at stake when her help was needed most. Becker’s repeated phrase “You can count on me” and her stirring ending weave together the numerical and lyrical aspects of Katherine’s life to inspire a new generation of thinkers.
From the first page, readers can see Katherine’s intelligence and inquisitiveness that shined whether she was walking to school, doing chores, or, later, making sure our astronauts made it to the moon and back safely. Dow Phumiruk’s artwork is always thrilling, and here blackboards covered in formulas as Katherine stands on tiptoe as a child and on a ladder as an adult to complete them will leave readers awestruck with her understanding of and abilities with numbers. Illustrations of school rooms and offices give children a realistic view of the times, and her imagery pairs perfectly with Becker’s text in demonstrating the concepts of sending a rocket ship into space and bringing it home again. Phumiruk’s lovely images of space are uplifting reminders that dreams do come true.
A stellar biography that will enthrall children and inspire them to keep their eyes on their goals and achieve their dreams, Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 is highly recommended for home bookshelves and is a must for school and public library collections.
Ages 5 – 9
Henry Holt and Company, 2018 | ISBN 978-1250137524
Discover more about Helaine Becker and her books on her website.
To learn more about Dow Phumiruk, her books, and her art, visit her website.
Watch the Counting on Katherine book trailer!
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