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Katherine G. Johnson is a black mathematician and physicist from the United States who contributed to the development of several pioneering space exploration programs through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Her calculations led to the success of the first manned missions into space and the U.S. space program as a whole.

Childhood and Education

Katherine Johnson’s natural ability as a mathematician emerged at a surprisingly young age.

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on August 26, 1918. Joshua, her father, worked as a farmer and occasionally a janitor to make extra money. Joylette, her mother, taught in a local school. Katherine Johnson was the youngest of four children and stood out from her older siblings, Horace, Charles, and Margaret, with her natural mathematical skills and intelligence.

Johnson started second grade before her sixth birthday and skipped fifth grade to surpass her older brother by a grade level. When she and her siblings reached 8th grade, the highest grade offered to African-American children in their city, their father sent them to the West Virginia State High, more than 100 miles away. Katherine was only 10 years old.

One of Johnson’s early mentors was her teacher, Dr. William Schliefflin Claytor, who was the third African-American student to receive a doctorate in mathematics. He included more advanced math courses for the high-achieving Johnson, including analytical geometry. She graduated at 14 years old and enrolled in West Virginia State College with a full scholarship.[1] Johnson graduated with a Bachelors in Math and French with Honors in 1937.[2][3]

Early Career, Racism, and Family

Katherine Johnson began working at a black public school in Virginia.[4] She experienced racism for the first time while on the bus ride to her new job as a math and French teacher in Marion, Virginia. When the bus crossed the borderline into the state the bus driver moved all the African-Americans to the back of the bus. They changed buses and the white people boarded the new bus and the black passengers were forced into taxis after being told, “All you colored folk, come over here.” Johnson refused until the man asked her more politely.[5]

In 1939, the president of the newly integrated West Virginia University offered a place in the graduate mathematics program to Kathryn Johnson and two others. She left her job teaching to enroll, but left after the first semester to marry and start a family.[6] Johnson married James Francis Goble and the couple produced three daughters, Kathy, Joylette, and Constance.[7]

Katherine Johnson and NASA

Katherine Johnson’s initial introduction to analytical geometry by Dr. William Schliefflin Claytor greatly helped her later career with NASA.

Katherine Johnson raised her young children and returned to teaching after they got older. In 1952, her relative informed her of an opening at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’, the agency before the National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA), all-black West Area Computing group at the laboratory in Langley, Virginia, with Dorothy Vaughan. Johnson and Goble agreed to move to Newport News and she began working in the middle of 1953.

Vaughan assigned Johnson to the Flight Research Division of the Maneuver Loads Branch as a temporary employee. Johnson remained there for the next four years. She first calculated data and other mathematical tasks with her female coworkers.[8] The women crunched all the data used by the all-male research teams. Johnson received a temporary assignment to one of these teams and her knowledge of analytical geometry helped win her favor with the men.[9]

Professional Career

At NASA, Katherine Johnson managed to avoid much of the gender and racial barriers plaguing many other industries. Her focus on the work, unmistakable talents, and assertive personality surely helped. James Goble, her husband, died in 1956 after fighting brain cancer. She continued to work and joined a secret flight dynamics branch of NASA while co-authoring the first public textbook covering space.[10]

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the space satellite, Sputnik, and the U.S.’s attention turned to aeronautics and space. In 1958, Kathryn Johnson assisted in the mathematics for the collection of lectures entitled Notes on Space Technology. The lectures were given in 1958 by NASA engineers in the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division and the Flight Research Division. The engineers from those lectures soon helped form the first official space exploration program called The Space Task Group as NACA became NASA. Johnson “came along with the program.” [11]

Johnson remarried in 1959 to Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson, a veteran of the Korean War. At the same time, she found her calling within NASA[12]Katherine Johnson calculated trajectories for space travel that determined launch timings. In May 1961, her trajectory analysis for the Freedom 7 Mission led by Alan Shepard led to the first successful attempt at human spaceflight and return.[13]

The NASA Space program grew and so did the difficulty of Johnson’s tasks. Her calculations were meant to propel space capsules into space to orbit the moon and to land on and launch objects from the lunar surface. She also created star-based navigational charts to guide astronauts back in case of system failure.[14] John Glenn requested Katherine Johnson to review the trajectory for the 1962 Friendship 7 mission calculated by computers for the first time. A network of IBM computers from Bermuda, Cape Canaveral, and Washington, D.C., programmed the whole mission, but Glenn would only approve the mission if Johnson agreed with the trajectories.

Later Life and Honors

Katherine Johnson continued to work for NASA for the rest of her career. She made calculations by hand for many more important space missions, including the syncing of the Apollo Lunar Lander with the Command and Service Module orbiting the moon and the Earth Resources Satellite.[15] She also first helped with the Space Shuttle program and then on plans for a Mars mission. She co-authored or wrote 26 scientific papers throughout the course of her career. In 1986, Johnson retired from NASA after 33 years. NASA awarded her the Group Achievement Award along with the others who worked with the Lunar Spacecraft and Operation group.

In 1998, the State University of New York (SUNY) Farmingdale awarded Johnson an honorary Doctorate of Laws. The next year, West Virginia State University named her the Outstanding Alumnus of the Year. She also received an honorary Doctorate of Science from Laurel, Maryland’s Capitol College in May 2006.[16] U.S. President Barack Obama honored Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to the space program and the successful missions.[17]

References

Bibliography


Shetterly, M.L. (2016, November 22). Katherine Johnson Biography. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.[1]


The National Visionary Leadership Project. (2013). Katherine Johnson: National Visionary. The Oral History Archive.[2]

Footnotes

  1. The National Visionary Leadership Project, 2013
  2. Shetterly, 2016
  3. The National Visionary Leadership Project, 2013
  4. Shetterly, 2016
  5. The National Visionary Leadership Project, 2013
  6. Shetterly, 2016
  7. The National Visionary Leadership Project, 2013
  8. Shetterly, 2016
  9. The National Visionary Leadership Project, 2013
  10. The National Visionary Leadership Project, 2013
  11. Shetterly, 2016
  12. The National Visionary Leadership Project, 2013
  13. Shetterly, 2016
  14. The National Visionary Leadership Project, 2013
  15. Shetterly, 2016
  16. The National Visionary Leadership Project, 2013
  17. Shetterly, 2016