Katherine G. Johnson
Katherine Johnson was born as Creola Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to Joylette Roberta (née Lowe) and Joshua McKinley Coleman. She was the youngest of four children. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a lumberman, farmer, and 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). Johnson was enrolled when she was 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 enrolled at 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 had mentored Coleman 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 Johnson. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937, with degrees in mathematics and French, at age 18.
After graduating from college Johnson took on a teaching job at a black public school in Marion, Virginia. Johnson remained in the role for only a year before returning to her studies. When West Virginia decided to quietly integrate its graduate schools in 1939, West Virginia State’s president, Dr. John W. Davis, selected Katherine Johnson and two men to be the first black students offered spots at the state’s flagship school, West Virginia University. At the end of the first session, however, she decided to leave school to start a family with her first husband, James Goble.
She returned to teaching when her three daughters got older, but it wasn’t until 1952 that a relative told her about open positions at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA’s) Langley laboratory, headed by fellow West Virginian Dorothy Vaughan. Katherine and her husband decided to move the family to Newport News, Virginia, to pursue the opportunity, and Katherine began work at Langley in the summer of 1953.
The 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik changed history—and Johnson’s life. As the NACA became NASA later that year Johnson was asked to continue to serve in a major role. She did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight. In 1960, she and engineer Ted Skopinski coauthored a report laying out the equations describing an orbital spaceflight in which the landing position of the spacecraft is specified. It was the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had received credit as an author of a research report.
In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Johnson was called upon to do the work that she would become most known for. The complexity of the orbital flight had required the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, Cape Canaveral in Florida, and Bermuda. The computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission from liftoff to splashdown, but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts. As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to retrieve 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. “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space.
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.
When asked to name her greatest contribution to space exploration, Johnson would talk about the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Module with the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module. She also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS, later renamed Landsat) and authored or co-authored 26 research reports. She retired in 1986, after 33 years at Langley. “I loved going to work every single day,” she said.
Katherine Johnson died on February 24, 2020, and the age of 101. The legacy of Katherine Johnson is illustrated by a series of rewards and acknowledgments that she has received. Johnson was named West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year in 1999. President Barack Obama presented her 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. Two NASA facilities have been named in her honor. On May 5, 2016, a new 40,000-square-foot (3,700 m2) building was named the "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.