Birthday: August 26, 1918
African American Mathematicians
Sun Sign: Virgo
Also Known As: Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson
Born in: White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia
Famous as: Mathematician
Spouse/Ex-: Colonel James A. Johnson, James Francis Goble (m. 1939–1956)
father: Joshua Coleman
children: Constance Goble, Joylette Goble, Katherine Goble
U.S. State: West Virginia
education: West Virginia State University (1937), West Virginia University
awards: Presidential Medal of Freedom
Virginia Women in History
100 Women (BBC)
Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson is an American mathematician who is known for her contributions to the U.S. space program. Her calculations and analysis have helped astronauts go to the Moon and chart many flight paths. She worked for NASA for over three decades, during which her pioneering calculations helped establish the organization’s credibility. As a child, Johnson’s acumen was apparent as she was great with numbers. She graduated with the highest honors and earned a degree in mathematics. She began working for NACA, NASA’s predecessor, and worked with other women in the West Computers division. She analyzed test data and provided mathematical derivations necessary for the space program. She was involved in NASA’s Mercury program, calculated the course of Freedom 7, and calculated and analyzed the launch of Apollo 11. Toward the end of her career, she worked for the space shuttle program. She received several prestigious awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her extraordinary career not only flouted gender and race stereotypes, it also helped America reach some of its greatest landmarks in space. Johnson retired from NASA in 1986. Her life served as an inspiration for the book, ‘Hidden Figures’, which was later turned into a movie.
Childhood & Early Life
Katherine Johnson was born on August 26, 1918 to Joshua and Joylette Coleman in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Her father mostly worked as a handyman at the Greenbrier Hotel, while her mother was a teacher. Katherine had three other siblings, and she was the youngest of the lot.
Johnson’s mathematical genius was evident from an early age. However, owing to her African-American race, she had to enroll in West Virginia State College when she was only 10 years old. She graduated from high school when she was 14.
She later enrolled herself in West Virginia University and decided to pursue mathematics. Her enthusiasm lead to many professors taking an interest in mentoring her. She was taught by Angie Turner King and W. W. Schiefflin Claytor.
She graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Mathematics and French in 1937. She subsequently took up a teaching position at a public school in Marion, Virginia. She left her job after her marrying James Francis Goble in 1939. She was one of the three African-American students who studied at West Virginia University at the time.
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Katherine Johnson’s early aptitude and inclination toward numbers naturally led her to embark on a career in research mathematics; however, this field was dominated by White American men and it wasn’t easy for an African American woman to stake a claim.
In 1952, a relative informed her about job openings at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), NASA’s predecessor. NACA was accepting mathematicians, irrespective of race and gender, for their Guidance and Navigation Department. Johnson applied and received a formal job offer in 1953, and she accepted it.
She began working at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory near Virginia as a ‘computer’. She held this position from 1953 to 1958. From West Area Computers section, she was later shifted to the Guidance and Control Division, which mostly had male engineers.
The milieu she worked in was plagued by racist laws. The federal workplace segregation laws required African-American women to work, eat and use restrooms that were different from their peers. The stations where they worked were labeled ‘Colored Computers’.
NACA had to dismantle the colored pool when it was taken over by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. Under NASA, Johnson was moved to the Spacecraft Controls Branch where she worked as an aerospace technologist from 1958 until 1986, the year of her retirement. *Among her most notable works, she calculated the mathematical computation for the trajectory of Alan Shepard’s space flight on May 5, 1961. He became the first American who went to space. She was also involved in the launch calculations of his Mercury mission.
She was also crucial in plotting the navigator charts for astronauts in situations where electric systems failed. When NASA adopted the latest technology, astronaut John Glenn specifically asked Johnson to calculate his orbit around the earth. He also stated that he wouldn’t fly until Johnson verified the math.
With the advent of digital computers, Johnson started working with them directly and soon mastered the new technology available to her. She calculated the trajectory for the Apollo 11 flight that landed on the moon in 1969.
In 1970, she worked on the Apollo 13 moon mission. When the mission was officially aborted, her calculations that focused on backup procedures and navigation charts ensured the crew’s safe return to Earth.
Towards the end of her career, Johnson worked for the Space Shuttle Program, the Earth Resources Satellite and a mission on Mars. She retired from Nasa in 1986.
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The life of Johnson along with some of her fellow mathematicians was chronicled in the book, ‘Hidden Figures,’ by Margot Lee Shetterly. The book was adapted into a critically-acclaimed film of the same name in 2016, wherein her role was essayed by Taraji Henson. The movie was nominated for the Academy Awards that year, which was attended by Johnson.
Awards & Achievements
Katherine Johnson remains a role model for many women who aspire to make a career in science. She was named West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year in 1999. Calling her life and achievements remarkable, Barack Obama honored her with a presidential medal on November 24, 2015.
A research facility called ‘Katherine G. Johnson Computation Research Facility’ was unveiled and opened on September 20, 2017. Johnson, who attended the event, was conferred with the Silvery Snoopy Award (also known as the astronaut’s award) for her contributions towards NASA’s success.
She was also listed in BBC’s list of 100 influential women across the world in 2016. Later, West Virginia State University, her alma mater, announced a STEM scholarship in her honor and instilled a life-size statue of her in their campus.
In May 2018, she was bestowed upon an honorary doctorate by the College of William and Mary, Virginia.
Family & Personal Life
Katherine married James Francis Goble in 1939. The couple had three children: Constance, Joylette, and Katherine. Her husband died of a tumor in 1956.
She later married war veteran Lieutenant James A. Johnson in 1959. She currently lives with her husband in Hampton, Virginia. Her passion for science hasn’t waned and she continues to encourage her grandchildren and ex-students to pursue careers in science.
Katherine Johnson was planned to be included in a Lego set that honored successful women who were a part of NASA. She was going to be cast alongside Nancy Grace Roman, Sally Ride, Margaret Hamilton and Mae Jemison. However, Lego was unable to obtain the rights to use her image and had to remove the design.
She was often called a child prodigy. Johnson confessed that she counted the steps she took, the plates she washed as was unable to stop herself from seeing math everywhere.