Katherine G. Johnson in 2008
August 26, 1918
|Employer||NACA, NASA 1953–1988|
|Known for||Calculating the trajectories for many NASA crewed missions|
Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (born August 26, 1918) is an American mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights. During her 35-year career at NASA and its predecessor, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks. The space agency noted her "historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist".
Johnson's work included calculating trajectories, launch windows and emergency return paths for Project Mercury spaceflights, including those for astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American in orbit, and rendezvous paths for the Apollo Lunar Module and command module on flights to the Moon. Her calculations were also essential to the beginning of the Space Shuttle program, and she worked on plans for a mission to Mars. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson as a lead character in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.
Katherine Johnson (née Katherine Coleman) was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to Joylette and Joshua Coleman. She was the youngest of four children. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a lumberman, farmer, handyman, and worked at the Greenbrier Hotel.
Johnson showed strong mathematical abilities from an early age. Because Greenbrier County did not offer public schooling for African-American students past the eighth grade, the Colemans arranged for their children to attend high school in Institute, West Virginia. This school was on the campus of West Virginia State College (WVSC, now West Virginia State University). Johnson was enrolled when she was only ten years old. The family split their time between Institute during the school year and White Sulphur Springs in the summer.
After graduating from high school at 14, Johnson entered West Virginia State, a historically black college. As a student, she took every math course offered by the college. Multiple professors mentored her, including the chemist and mathematician, Angie Turner King, who also had mentored Johnson throughout high school, and W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African-American to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. Claytor added new mathematics courses just for Katherine. She was graduated summa cum laude in 1937, with degrees in mathematics and French, at age 18. She took on a teaching job at a black public school in Marion, Virginia.
In 1939, after marrying her first husband, James Goble, Johnson left her teaching job and enrolled in a graduate math program. She quit after one year, after becoming pregnant and choosing to focus on her family. At the time of her entry, she was the first African-American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. Through WVSC's president, Dr. John W. Davis, she became one of three African-American students, and the only woman, selected to integrate the graduate school after the United States Supreme Court ruling Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938). The court had ruled that states that provided public higher education to white students also had to provide it to black students, to be satisfied either by establishing black colleges and universities or by admitting black students to previously white-only universities.
Johnson decided on a career as a research mathematician, although this was a difficult field for African Americans and women to enter. The first jobs she found were in teaching. At a family gathering in 1952 a relative mentioned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring mathematicians. At the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, based in Hampton, Virginia, near Langley Field, NACA hired African-American mathematicians as well as whites for their Guidance and Navigation Department. Johnson accepted a job offer from the agency in 1953.
According to an oral history archived by the National Visionary Leadership Project:
At first she [Johnson] worked in a pool of women performing math calculations. Katherine has referred to the women in the pool as virtual "computers who wore skirts". Their main job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other precise mathematical tasks. Then one day, Katherine (and a colleague) were temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team. Katherine's knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male bosses and colleagues to the extent that, "they forgot to return me to the pool". While the racial and gender barriers were always there, Katherine says she ignored them. Katherine was assertive, asking to be included in orial meetings (where no women had gone before). She simply told people she had done the work and that she belonged.
From 1953 to 1958, Johnson worked as a "computer", analyzing topics such as gust alleviation for aircraft. Originally assigned to the West Area Computers section supervised by mathematician Dorothy Vaughan, Johnson was reassigned to the Guidance and Control Division of Langley's Flight Research Division. It was staffed by white male engineers. In keeping with state racial segregation laws, and federal workplace segregation introduced under President Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century, Johnson and the other African-American women in the computing pool were required to work, eat, and use restrooms that were separate from those of their white peers. Their office was labeled as "Colored Computers". In an interview with WHRO-TV, Johnson stated that she "didn't feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job ... and play bridge at lunch." She added: "I didn't feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn't feel it."
NACA disbanded the colored computing pool in 1958 when the agency was superseded by NASA, which adopted digital computers. Although the installation was desegregated, forms of discrimination were still pervasive. Johnson recalled that era:
We needed to be assertive as women in those days – assertive and aggressive – and the degree to which we had to be that way depended on where you were. I had to be. In the early days of NASA women were not allowed to put their names on the reports – no woman in my division had had her name on a report. I was working with Ted Skopinski and he wanted to leave and go to Houston ... but Henry Pearson, our supervisor – he was not a fan of women – kept pushing him to finish the report we were working on. Finally, Ted told him, "Katherine should finish the report, she's done most of the work anyway." So Ted left Pearson with no choice; I finished the report and my name went on it, and that was the first time a woman in our division had her name on something.
From 1958 until her retirement in 1986, Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist, moving during her career to the Spacecraft Controls Branch. She calculated the trajectory for the May 5, 1961 space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. She also calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission. She plotted backup navigation charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn's orbit around Earth, officials called on Johnson to verify the computer's numbers; Glenn had asked for her specifically and had refused to fly unless Johnson verified the calculations. Biography.com states these were "far more difficult calculations, to account for the gravitational pulls of celestial bodies". Author Margot Lee Shetterly stated, "So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success." She added that, in a time where computing was "women's work" and engineering was left to men, "it really does have to do with us over the course of time sort of not valuing that work that was done by women, however necessary, as much as we might. And it has taken history to get a perspective on that."
Johnson later worked directly with digital computers. Her ability and reputation for accuracy helped to establish confidence in the new technology. In 1961, her work helped to ensure that Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 Mercury capsule would be quickly found after landing, using the accurate trajectory that had been established.
She also helped to calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. During the moon landing, Johnson was at a meeting in the Pocono Mountains. She and a few others crowded around a small television screen watching the first steps on the moon. In 1970, Johnson worked on the Apollo 13 moon mission. When the mission was aborted, her work on backup procedures and charts helped set a safe path for the crew's return to Earth, creating a one-star observation system that would allow astronauts to determine their location with accuracy. In a 2010 interview, Johnson recalled, "Everybody was concerned about them getting there. We were concerned about them getting back." Later in her career, Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on plans for a mission to Mars.
In 1939, Katherine (then Coleman) married James Francis Goble. They had three daughters: Constance, Joylette, and Katherine. In 1953, she and James moved their family to Newport News to pursue a new job opportunity. In 1956, James Goble died of an inoperable brain tumor. Katherine Goble remarried in 1959 to James A. Johnson, a U.S. Army officer and a veteran of the Korean War.
Katherine Johnson continued her career at NASA. She sang in the choir of Carver Presbyterian Church for 50 years. She has been a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha since college, the first sorority established by and for African-American women. Johnson and her husband, who have six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, live in Hampton, Virginia. She continues to encourage her grandchildren and students to pursue careers in science and technology.
Johnson co-authored 26 scientific papers. Her social influence as a pioneer in space science and computing is demonstrated by the honors she has received and her status as a role model for a life in science. Since 1979 (before she retired from NASA), Johnson has been listed among African Americans in science and technology. Johnson was named West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year in 1999. President Barack Obama presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of 17 Americans so honored on November 24, 2015. She was cited as a pioneering example of African-American women in STEM.
On May 5, 2016, a new 40,000-square-foot (3,700 m2) building was named "Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility" and formally dedicated at the agency's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. The facility officially opened its doors on September 22, 2017. Johnson attended this event, which also marked the 55th anniversary of astronaut Alan Shepard's historic rocket launch and splashdown, a success Johnson helped achieve. At the ceremony, deputy director Lewin said this about Johnson: "Millions of people around the world watched Shepard's flight, but what they didn't know at the time was that the calculations that got him into space and safely home were done by today's guest of honor, Katherine Johnson". During the event, Johnson also received a Silver Snoopy award; often called the astronaut's award, NASA stated it is given to those "who have made outstanding contributions to flight safety and mission success".
In 2016, Johnson was included in the list of "100 Women", BBC's list of 100 influential women worldwide. NASA stated, "Her calculations proved as critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program, as they did to those first steps on the country's journey into space."
Johnson has been portrayed in the media. The highly acclaimed film Hidden Figures, released in December 2016, was based on the non-fiction book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, which was published earlier that year. It follows Johnson and other female African-American mathematicians (Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan) who worked at NASA. Taraji P. Henson plays Johnson in the film. Appearing alongside Henson at the 89th Academy Awards, Johnson received a standing ovation from the audience. In an earlier interview, Johnson offered the following comment about the movie: "It was well-done. The three leading ladies did an excellent job portraying us." In a 2016 episode of the NBC series Timeless, titled "Space Race", the mathematician is portrayed by Nadine Ellis.
In 2019, Johnson was announced as one of the members of the inaugural class of Government Executive's "Government Hall of Fame".
Her calculations proved as critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program, as they did to those first steps on the country's journey into space.
As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to 'get the girl'—Katherine Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. ... When asked to name her greatest contribution to space exploration, Katherine Johnson talks about the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo's Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module.
By thirteen, she was attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. ... enrolled in the college itself, where she made quick work of the school's math curriculum and found a mentor in math professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a PhD in Mathematics. Katherine graduated with highest honors in 1937 and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia.
Fascinated by numbers and smart to boot, for by the time she was 10 years old, she was a high school freshman – a truly amazing feat in an era when school for African-Americans normally stopped at eighth grade for those who could indulge in that luxury. Katherine skipped several grades to graduate from high school at 14 and from college at 18.
Katherine Johnson graduated from high school at age 14 and from college at 18.
Excerpt from W. Warren, Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, in Black Women Scientists in the United States (Indiana University Press, 1999), 140–147.
In 1961, on the strength of Johnson's work, Alan Shepherd became the first American to go into space. Johnson calculated his trajectory, the path he would take from launch to landing. If she was wrong, the best case scenario was that NASA wouldn't have known where to pick him up.
There were an incredible number of factors at play: Earth's rotation, the Moon's location, when you took off, when you reached the Moon. "It was intricate, but it was possible," she said. The mission went according to plan. Her numbers weren't just there to make sure everything went right – she also stepped in when something went wrong. In 1970, Apollo 13, which had been bound for the Moon, was stymied by the explosions of two oxygen tanks. Johnson was one of the mathematicians who scrambled to calculate a safe path back to Earth for the stranded astronauts. That work became the basis of a system that only requires one star observation matched with an onboard star chart for astronauts to pinpoint their location.
S. Lewin, NASA Facility Dedicated to Mathematician Katherine Johnson, space.com (5 May 2016).
On May 5, 2016, she returned to NASA Langley, on the 55th anniversary of Shepard's historic flight, to attend a ceremony where a $30 million, 40,000-square-foot Computational Research Facility was named in her honor. As part of the event, Johnson also received a Silver Snoopy award from Leland Melvin, an astronaut and former NASA associate administrator for education. Often called the astronaut's award, the Silver Snoopy goes to people who have made outstanding contributions to flight safety and mission success.
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