High Stakes Lab

6 August 2014

A photo of Katherine Johnson from her early days at NASA. NASA
A photo of Katherine Johnson from her early days at NASA.

In my introductory physics courses, I occasionally implement what I call “high stakes labs.” Take a set of measurements for a devices such as a ball launcher, use those results and your knowledge of physics to predict an outcome (such as where the ball will land) and then test your prediction. The catch is that the grade for the lab depends upon the accuracy of your prediction. It is stressful and challenging, but it demonstrates a common aspect of science and engineering. You can’t simply look up the answer in the book. You have to test your ideas in the real world.

In terms of high stakes labs, the highest of stakes was likely the early manned space program. Not only does everything from the propulsion system to life support need to function correctly, the rocket needs to land in the correct location. Calculating trajectories is not easy, as anyone who has played Kerbal Space knows. It involves complex mathematics such as analytic geometry, and it absolutely needs to be correct.

When NASA prepared to launch Alan Shepard as the first American in space, they used a computer to calculate his capsule’s trajectory. Her name was Katherine Johnson. Johnson’s forte was analytic geometry, and she was very, very good at it. She began her work as part of a pool of “computers” that worked through the complex mathematics necessary for orbital predictions. Her skill as a mathematician was so impressive that when NASA first began using electronic computers to calculate trajectories, Johnson was asked to verify the results.

Johnson worked for NASA’s Langley Research Center for more than three decades, co-authored 26 papers, and ensured that American astronauts reached their destination. She also happened to be a black woman in a field dominated by white men, which was a whole other kind of high stakes lab.