In the seventh episode of Bizzarro Bazar: the tragic and startling story of the Sutherland Sisters; a piece of the Moon which fell to Earth; a creature halfway between the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]
Next year this beautiful lady, Katherine Johnson, will turn one hundred. When she was a little girl, her father Joshua used to repeat to her: “You are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better”.
It was hard to believe you were as good as anybody else for a coloured little girl who had grown up in White Sulphur Springs, where education ended compulsorily with the eighth grade for anybody who was not white.
Katherine’s father, Joshua, worked as a farmer and handyman for the Greenbrier Hotel, the thermal resort where the wealthiest squires of all Virginia used to spend their holidays; it was perhaps for this reason that he wanted his daughter to follow her own path without hesitation, in spite of the segregationist barriers. If she wasn’t allowed to study in the small town where they lived, he was going to bring her to Institute, 130 miles further west.
Katherine, for her part, sped up the process: at the age of 14 she had already finished high school, at the age of 18 she earned a degree with honours in mathematics. In 1938 the Supreme Court established that “white-only” universities should admit coloured students, therefore in 1939 Katherine became the first African-American woman to attend the graduate school at the West Virginia University in Morgantown.
After completing her studies, however, a career was far from being guaranteed. Katherine wished she could take up research, but once again she had to cope with two disadvantages: she was a woman, and on top of that African-American.
She taught mathematics for more than ten years, waiting for a good chance which eventually presented itself in 1952. NASA (called NACA at the time) had started to employ both white and African-American mathematics, and offered her a job. Therefore in 1953 Katherine Johnson joined the very first team of the space agency.
She started working in the “computer in skirts” section, a pool of women whose job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other mathematical tasks. One day Katherine was assigned to an all-male flight research team; she was supposed to work with them for a limited time, but Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry made her bosses “forget” to return her to her old position.
But she couldn’t escape segregation. Katherine was required to work, eat, and use restrooms in areas separated from those of her white peers. Regardless of whoever had carried out the work, reports were signed only by the men of the pool.
But Katherine had kept in mind her father’s words, and her strategy was to ignore what she was expected to do. She used to participate in the all-male engineering meetings, she signed reports in place of her male superiors, and in spite of any objection. Because she had never thought she was inferior – nor superior – to anybody.
That was a pioneering era and participating in the first Space Task Force in history meant venturing in completely new operations and facing unknown issues. With her competence and talent for geometry, Katherine was one of the most brilliant “human computers”. She calculated the trajectory of the first American space flight, the one of Alan Shepard in 1961.
Then at some point NASA decided to move on to electronic computers, dismantling the team of “human calculators”; the first flight programmed using the machines was that of John Glenn, who orbited around the Earth. But the astronaut himself refused to leave unless Katherine manually verified all the calculations made by the computers. She was the only one he trusted.
Later Katherine helped to calculate the trajectory of Apollo 11, launched in 1969. Seeing Neil Armstrong taking the first step on the Moon moved her, but only to a certain point: for somebody who had been working on that mission for years, this certainly came as no surprise.
For a long time, little was known about the work carried out by Katherine (and her colleagues): overlooked for decades by a society that was always reluctant to acknowledge her real value, today her name is studied at school and her story has been recently narrated by the film Hidden figures (2016, directed by Theodore Melfi). The contribution offered by Katherine to the space race is now regarded as essential – although the ones who became heroes were those astronauts who could have never left the Earth soil without her precise calculations.
Smiling, about to turn one hundred, Katherine Johnson continues to repeat: “I’m as good as anybody, but no better”.
It’s September 7, 2013. At the 0B pavilion of the Wallops Flight Facility, on the east coast of Virginia, NASA is getting ready to launch a rocket towards the Moon.
The LADEE probe was designed to study the atmosphere and the exosphere of our satellite, and to gather information about moon dust. For this purpose, the probe is equipped with two technologically advanced mass spectrometers, and a sensor which is capable of detecting the collisions of the minuscule dust particles that rise up from the lunar ground due to the electrostatic effect.
As the countdown begins, dozens of specialists supervise the data flow coming from the various sectors of the rocket, checking the advancing launch phases on their monitors. Vibrations, balancing, condition of the ogive: everything seems to be going according to plan, but mental tension and concentration are palpable. It is a 280 million dollar mission, after all.
Yet at the 0B pavilion of the Wallops Flight Facility, on the east coast of Virginia, there is also someone who is happily ignoring the frantic atmosphere.
She knows nothing about electrostatics, mass spectrometers, solid rocket fuels or space agencies. Furthermore, she does not even know what a dollar is.
The peaceful creature just knows that she is very satisfied, having just gulped down as many as three flies within two minutes (although she ignores what a minute is).
From the edge of her body of water she looks at the moon, yes, like every night, but without trying to reach it. And like every night, she croaks, pleased with her simple life.
A life that had always been without mysteries, ever since she was just a tadpole. A comfortably predictable life.
But now, all of a sudden – here come the thunderous roar, the flames, the smoke. Absurdity breaks into the reality of our poor frog. From the pool, she rises in the air, sucked up by the rocket’s contrail. Flung up in the sky, in an unexpected flight, in a definitive and shining rapture.
She sees her entire existence passing before her eyes, like in a movie – although she doesn’t know what a movie is. The endless stakeouts waiting for a tiny little insect, the cool nights spent soaking in the water, the eggs she has never managed to lay, the brief moments of fulfilment… but now, because of this cruel and unnatural joke, it all seems to be meaningless!
“There is no criterion for such an end” reflects the amphibious philosopher in the fraction of a second in which the incredible trajectory pushes her towards the rocket’s furnace “but maybe it is better this way. Who would really want to be weighed down by a reason? Every moment I have lived, good or bad, has contributed to bring me here, in a vertiginous ascent towards the flash of light in which I am about to dissolve. If this world is a meaningless dance, it is a dance after all. So let’s dance!”
And with this last thought, the fatal blaze.
That’s how it turned out to be — your mother was bleeding.
The doctors opened the woman’s body, and saved her. You should know that, despite all their cruelty and barbarity, human beings do this as well: they keep each other alive.
Your mother was out of the woods but the doctors wanted to understand why there was so much blood (another human thing, to try and understand). The flesh became a casket and revealed the secret that had been hidden till then, a secret of which the woman herself was not aware: they saw you.
You had struggled to surface, and you had failed.
They called you extrauterine, but you are actually extraterrestrial. From the dark of your mother’s womb you moved to the shining transparency of the liquid that would prevent you from dissolving. Your floating feet have never touched this planet. You have not touched the ground, you have not landed. Our bitter dimension could not damage you.
Out of time — at least out of the time of the human beings — you are floating motionless.
I found an ancient vase, hand-blown more than a century ago by an artisan who lived in a faraway continent, to honour your alien beauty. I gently immersed the minuscule, snow white limbs in the liquid, as if they were holy relics and I was their humble keeper.
Now you are watching from the shelf, suffused with gleam.
I talk to you as if I addressed my own wonder. Only a fool would expect answers from a mystery.
What do you know about the Universe?
Maybe life is precious and rare. Maybe it is more similar to a mould, a moss clinging to every minimal surface, to any rock it can find in the cold of the cosmos.
What dreams have you dreamed?
Maybe for a while you have felt the warmth, the ancient and familiar sensation, because we all know how to be born and how to die. But maybe your incomplete shape did not let you perceive the beginning nor the end.
What do you see when you look out at me from inside there?
Maybe my pain means something to you. Maybe it is only the consequence of my persevering in living.
You who are out of the game, out of the world. You who have known the basics — to take shape and vanish — without your perceptions being clouded by words, thoughts, emotions. You who, of the heart, only knew the ephemeral vertigo.
Tell me. How can we go on, blinded and wounded as we are, fallen into the morass, belonging to the race that burnt the wings in the attempt to reach the sun?
“Do not fight. Slow down the collapses. Relax the muscles. Let yourself be conquered.”
This is what the Moon Baby seems to whisper to me.
“You cannot fall. There is nothing you have to do.”