Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
With All Deliberate Speed – Summary
In 1958, Langley employees said goodbye to their old company, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and joined the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Space Task Group, led by Robert Gilruth, was created to develop the United States’ first manned space program, Project Mercury. The people of Virginia were proud of Langley’s contribution to the space program, but the state also gained notoriety as the most resistant to integrated schools. In the fall of 1958, Governor Lindsay Almond closed the doors of schools in cities attempting to comply with the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, affecting thousands of students, including military families stationed at the naval base.
The schools in Langley were still segregated, with black children going to Carver, Huntington, and Phenix, while white children went to Newport News High and Hampton High. The school board paid “school fees” to black families to keep their children in the black district. Despite efforts for integration, change was slow.
Katherine Goble’s daughters excelled in their segregated schools and were regularly featured in the social column of the Norfolk Journal and Guide. Katherine’s husband had passed away, and she found herself drifting towards the social sidelines, but her friend Eunice Smith remained a steadfast companion. They both worked at Langley and were active in their sorority and church.
In 1958, James A. Johnson, who had served in the military, met Katherine at church. They started dating and he understood her dedication to her job at Langley, where she worked on space exploration. The space race was urgent, so NASA had to work quickly to beat the Soviets. Some people thought NASA should have taken more time to consider all options for space travel, but NASA engineers approached Project Mercury like any other problem, breaking it down into parts.
In designing the spacecraft for the Mercury program, engineers faced the challenge of minimizing aerodynamic drag while also ensuring the safety of the astronaut inside. Initially, they considered a needle-shaped structure for the spacecraft, but tests showed that this design would not be able to withstand the extreme heat caused by friction during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, they settled on a blunt-shaped design that would create a shock wave to dissipate the heat and keep the astronaut safe.
The Mercury capsule was designed to be six feet wide, nearly eleven feet long, and weigh three thousand pounds. NASA’s selection process for astronauts was also stringent, with candidates limited to those who were small enough to fit into the spacecraft and met other qualifications, such as being under forty years old and a qualified test pilot. Once selected, the Mercury Seven astronauts were installed in an office at Langley and put through physical and classroom training.
The engineers on Katherine’s desk were responsible for calculating the spacecraft’s trajectories in painstaking detail, tracing out its exact path from launch until splashdown. The workload generated by the Mercury program was so great that even after one of Katherine’s colleagues jumped ship to join the effort, he still had to “bootleg” overflow work to other colleagues, including Katherine. Despite the challenges, the group approached their work with zeal, eager to be a part of the exciting new frontier of space exploration.
Female mathematicians were involved in almost every aspect of 20th-century defense technology, including computing ballistics trajectory tables. The first attempt to put a man in space was Project Mercury, which began with a simple ballistic flight that required precise calculations to ensure that the capsule landed in the right place. Katherine, a mathematician, was asked to help with these calculations and used her knowledge of analytical geometry to develop equations that accounted for the Earth’s gravity, oblateness, and rotation. Over several months, she developed a thirty-four-page report that contained twenty-two principal equations, nine error equations, and three reference texts, among other things. As the Space Task Group began to take shape, Katherine was asked to finish her report, which was still unfinished and the responsibility of her branch chief.
Jim Johnson asked Katherine to marry him and they got married in August 1959. They had a quiet ceremony at Carver Memorial. After they got married, when Katherine signed her first research report, she used a different name – Katherine G. Johnson – which is the name that people remember her by today.
What was the selection criteria for picking astronauts for missions? Who were the four selected?
The selection process for astronauts had some specific requirements. Only men who were under 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighed less than 180 pounds could be considered. They also had to be qualified test pilots who were under forty years old and had at least a bachelor’s degree. In 1959, NASA introduced the “Mercury Seven” astronauts to the public at a press conference. Four of the seven chosen had graduated from the US Naval Test Pilot School, where Katherine’s boyfriend, Jim Johnson, had worked as a mechanic. The selected astronauts, including Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and John Glenn, were given physical and classroom training in engineering and astronautics at Langley, next to the Space Task Group’s office.
How did Katherine’s work fit in the context of the space race? What sorts of work did she do?
Katherine and her colleagues at Langley were among the many female mathematicians who contributed significantly to the space race. Katherine worked as a computer, computing ballistics trajectory tables for NASA’s Project Mercury, which aimed to put a man into space. Katherine was particularly skilled in analytical geometry, and her work was crucial in determining the correct trajectory for the spacecraft’s launch and re-entry. Her work involved accounting for various factors, including Earth’s gravity, oblateness, and rotation. Katherine’s work, along with that of other female mathematicians, was essential in ensuring the success of Project Mercury and the early space missions.
What is the name of Katherine’s report for NASA? Why is it so significant for both her and the department?
The name of Katherine’s report for NASA is “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position”. It is significant for Katherine and the department because it was the first report to come out of Langley’s Aerospace Mechanics Division by a female author. Katherine worked hard on the report for ten months, overcoming obstacles and challenges from editorial committees, and her work helped NASA to achieve success in the space race. Additionally, her work helped to validate the use of computers in space travel, and it paved the way for other women and minorities to be accepted as mathematicians and engineers at NASA.
What is meant by the title of the chapter, ‘With all deliberate speed’?
The title of the chapter, “With all deliberate speed,” refers to the urgency with which NASA worked to beat the Soviets in the space race. Despite some people thinking that NASA should have taken more time to consider all options for space travel, NASA engineers approached Project Mercury like any other problem, breaking it down into parts. The engineers at Langley, including Katherine Goble, were responsible for calculating the spacecraft’s trajectories in painstaking detail, tracing out its exact path from launch until splashdown. Female mathematicians like Katherine were involved in almost every aspect of 20th-century defense technology, including computing ballistics trajectory tables. Despite the challenges, the group approached their work with zeal, eager to be a part of the exciting new frontier of space exploration.
Names mentioned in Chapter 18
He was an American astronaut, aviator, and senator who was one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. He was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962 and later became the oldest person to fly in space when he returned to space on the space shuttle in 1998.
He was a soldier and civil servant who worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA. He married Katherine G. Johnson in 1959.