Katherine Johnson
National Visionary

Born August 26, 1918 in White
Sulphur Springs, West Virginia

NASA mathematician and physicist whose work successfully guided astronauts throughout the historic earlyera of manned space flight including the first mission to the moon

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson is a pioneer of the American space movement. She is a research mathematician and physicist who calculated trajectories and orbits for historic missions including the first flight to put a man on the moon. She also helped develop space navigation systems to guide the astronauts. But her career might never have gotten off the ground if not for perseverance. Both her father’s determined effort to send his children to school and her own resolution to pursue her dreams overcame race and gender discrimination and led to an extraordinary life of personal fulfillment and professional achievements.

Katherine Coleman was born on August 26, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Her mother, Joylette, was a former teacher and her father, Joshua, a farmer who worked extra jobs as a janitor. At a very young age, Katherine, who was the youngest of four, showed signs of being a math prodigy. She says she counted everything. “I counted the steps. I counted the plates that I washed.” And, “I knew how many steps there were from our house to church.” Katherine believes she inherited her gift for numbers from her father. “He originally worked with lumber. He could look at a tree and tell how many boards he could get out of it.” One of Katherine’s favorite stories explains how her father could figure out arithmetic problems that confounded some of her teachers.

Though her father had quit school after the sixth grade, he considered education of paramount importance for Katherine and her older siblings Charles, Margaret and Horace. Since the local schools only offered classes to African Americans through the eighth grade, he enrolled his children in a school that was 125 miles away from their home. Katherine’s high school was part of the West Virginia Collegiate Institute (formerly the West Virginia Colored Institute). In 1929, the school was renamed West Virginia State College, and later it was renamed West Virginia State University. During the academic year, Mr. Coleman worked in White Sulphur Springs, while his wife and children resided near the school in Institute, West Virginia.

Johnson as a young woman
Katherine proved to be a talented pupil in more than math. At a very young age, she started following her brother to school, a two-room school house. The teacher was so impressed that Katherine could read, she was allowed to attend summer school. According to Katherine, when she officially started school, she went straight into the second grade, just before she turned six-years-old. Then, when Katherine was supposed to enter fifth grade, they opened a brand new school with three teachers. To divide the work more equitably between the teachers, they took the “best” fifth graders and put them into sixth grade, which, according to Katherine, is how she skipped fifth grade as well (putting her a grade-level above her older brother.) As a result, Katherine started high school at the age of ten.

The faculty quickly recognized her insatiable thirst for knowledge. She often walked home in the evenings with the school principal, Sherman H. Gus, who pointed out the stars in the constellations and inspired Katherine’s interest in astronomy. In her sophomore year, a young professor from Michigan, W.W. (William Waldron) Schiefflin Claytor, the third African American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics, found a protégé in Katherine. Dr. Claytor added special courses in advanced math including one in analytic geometry in which Katherine was the only pupil. When Dr. Claytor told Katherine she would make a good research mathematician, she took the dream to heart. At fourteen Katherine transitioned easily from West Virginia State High to the associated West Virginia State College. “I grew up across the street from the college and knew everyone on campus,” said Katherine. “I was the fresh kid in the freshman class and was treated no differently than anyone else. Maybe some people had a problem with it, but it was no problem for me,” she said. Katherine earned a full scholarship that included tuition, room and board. In 1937, the teenager graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in French and mathematics.

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Katherine began teaching in rural Virginia and West Virginia schools. Her first job was at an elementary school where she responded to a telegram that said if she could teach math and French, and play the piano, the job was hers.

On the bus ride to this first assignment (in Marion, VA), Katherine says she had her first experience with racism. She says when they crossed from West Virginia into Virginia, the bus stopped and all of the Black people had to move to the back, which Katherine did. Later, they had to change buses. All of the white passengers were allowed on the bus, but the Blacks were put into taxis. Katherine says the driver said “All you colored folk, come over here.” But she would not move until he asked her politely. Katherine also said her mother warned her, “Remember, you’re going to Virginia.” And that she said, “Well, tell them I’m coming.” Katherine says the racism was not as blatant in West Virginia as it was in Virginia.

In 1939, Katherine married James Francis Goble and started a family. The Gobles had three daughters, Constance, Joylette and Kathy. Though Katherine had resigned her teaching position, in 1940 she was invited to return to her alma mater for a graduate program in math. She believes that college administrators were quietly trying to avoid a segregation-related lawsuit. As a result, she became one of the first blacks to enroll in the graduate program. But she was unable to earn her advanced degree. Her husband fell ill in what would become a protracted fight with cancer. To help support her family, Katherine quit school and returned to teaching.

During a trip to visit relatives in Newport News, Virginia in 1952, her sister and brother-in-law told Katherine they believed that opportunities were opening up for Black women in mathematics at a nearby aeronautics research facility. The next week, the Gobles relocated so Katherine could pursue her dream.

It took a year of effort, but in June 1953, Katherine was contracted as a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the agency that preceded NASA. At first she 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 editorial meetings (where no women had gone before.) She simply told people she had done the work and that she belonged. A male colleague vouched for her. She felt particularly vindicated when a question came up the men could not answer; the engineer said, “I’ll have to ask Katherine about that.” In addition, Katherine says the people in her branch were a special group. “We were all dedicated to NASA,” she said, “and that came first.”

In 1956 James Goble lost his battle with brain cancer and Katherine became a widow. Despite the loss she stayed busy at work and continued to press for inclusion in key project capacities. Working on a secret program with core members of her agency’s flight dynamics branch, Katherine helped author the first textbook on space.

Meanwhile on the home front, Katherine’s minister introduced her to a dashing Korean War veteran, Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson. By the time they married in 1959, America’s space program was heating up and the race to beat the Soviets to the moon was in full gear.

Katherine’s specialty was calculating the trajectories for space shots which determined the timing for launches. “I’d ask (another section at NASA), ‘Where do you want (the astronauts) to come down?’ And they’d tell me the spot and I’d work backward from there.” An early achievement was correctly computing the ‘launch window’ for astronaut Alan Shepard’s Mercury mission. His successful splashdown at sea on May 5, 1961 marked the return of the first American in space.

As the work grew more complex, Katherine was tasked with calculations to propel space capsules into orbit around the moon and to send landing units to and from the lunar surface. She also earned kudos for plotting backup navigational charts that would enable astronauts to guide their ships by the stars in case of electronic failures. In 1962 computers were used for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s history making orbit around Earth. But, according to Katherine, NASA officials called on her to verify the numbers. “They knew I had done most of the [the calculations], so they let me do it,” she said.

When Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon in July 1969, Katherine Johnson was attending a sorority convention in Pennsylvania and watched the event on television. Few of her sorority sisters knew that she had calculated the trajectory for the Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. Along with fellow team members, Katherine was given a souvenir flag that made the trip with Armstrong and his crew.

Later in her career she worked on the Space Shuttle program and on plans for a mission to Mars. In total she co-authored 26 scientific papers. And, after 33 years of service, Katherine G. Johnson retired from NASA in 1986. For her pioneering work in the field of navigation problems, Katherine Johnson received the Group Achievement Award presented to NASA’s Lunar Spacecraft and Operations team. She also earned an honorary Doctor of Laws, from SUNY Farmingdale in 1998, and was selected as the West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year in 1999. In May 2006, Capitol College of Laurel Maryland awarded Katherine an honorary Doctor of Science. In addition to these honors, Katherine is proud that daughters Katherine and Constance became educators while Joylette recently retired from a successful career at Lockheed Martin as a computer analyst.

At 87 years old, Katherine and her husband enjoy spending time with six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Katherine still plays piano, bridge, and solves puzzles. She also relishes speaking to youngsters about her career. Often she shares words of wisdom, telling them to be self-reliant and to learn everything they can. She says, “Luck is a combination of preparation and opportunity. If you’re prepared and the opportunity comes up, it’s your good fortune to have been in the right place at the right time and to have been prepared for the job.”


Planet Science's profile on Johnson

David Blackwell's Visionary Page (Mathematician)

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/johnsonkatherine