EDI Collective

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Collective in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester

Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.

Katherine Johnson
The 2017 film Hidden Figures told the forgotten story of Katherine Johnson – an African-American mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the first and other US crewed space flights. 

Katherine’s achievements began in 1939 when she was chosen to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools. After a successful career in education, Katherine moved to the ‘all-black west’ area computer section at NASA in 1952. 

Her remarkable achievements would continue throughout her time at NASA. After the launch of the Soviet Satellite Sputnik in 1957, Katherine completed the Math for the notes on space tech. Forming the core of the space task group, which launched the first human spaceflight in 1961.

Alan Shepard’s first human space flight in the May of 1961 was critical in the USA/USSR’s space race. Shepard himself asked Johnson to calculate the trajectory analysis for his mission. This cemented Katherine’s place as the first African- American woman to gain credit for her research projects. 

However, Katherine’s pivotal moment was in 1962 when she calculated the Math for the Orbit of John Glenn. This was the first American orbital flight in space and was a success in showing US capacity at a time of severe cold war rivalries. 

Only in 2015, at the age of 97, was Katherine awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the then-President, Barack Obama. 

It took 52 years for Katherine’s achievements to be recognised by her country. Our SALC curriculum should ensure it does not play a similar role in ignoring, disregarding or failing to acknowledge pivotal figures in history due to race – it should include the monumental achievements made by women of colour like that of Katherine Johnson. It must be revisited and updated to go beyond teaching historical records through a narrow Euro-centric lens and broaden the perspectives through which it explores historical experiences and events into one that is more holistic and comprehensive.

multi-ethnic SALC curriculum is the way forward and is something we should work together to achieve. 

Written by Sian Jones

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