August 26, 1918 |
White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, West Virginia, U.S.
|Fields||Mathematics, computer science|
|Alma mater||West Virginia State University|
|Known for||contributions to America's aeronautics and space advances|
Katherine Johnson (born August 26, 1918) is an African-American physicist, space scientist, and mathematician who contributed to America's aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA. Known for accuracy in computerized celestial navigation, she calculated the trajectory for Project Mercury and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon.
Education and early work
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Katherine Johnson was born on August 26, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia to Joylette and Joshua Coleman. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a farmer and janitor. From a young age, Johnson enjoyed mathematics and could easily solve mathematical equations. Her father moved Johnson’s family to Institute, West Virginia, which was 125 miles away from the family home so that Johnson and her siblings could attend school. She attended West Virginia State High School and graduated from high school at age fourteen. A year later, she was a student at West Virginia State University (formerly West Virginia State College). In 1936, at age 18, Johnson graduated Summa Cum Laude with Bachelor's of Science degrees in French and Mathematics. At that time, Dr. W.W. Schiefflin Claytor, the third African American to earn a Ph.D. degree in mathematics, created a special course in analytic geometry of space specifically for Johnson. In 1940, she attended West Virginia University to obtain a graduate degree. Johnson was one of the first African Americans to enroll in the mathematics program. However, family issues kept her from completing the required courses. After college, Johnson began teaching in elementary and high schools in Virginia and West Virginia.
Dissatisfied with her life as a teacher, Johnson began looking for a career in a mathematical field. While at a family gathering in the early 1950's, a relative of Johnson's mentioned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became known as NASA, was looking for new workers. They were specifically looking for African-American females to work as “computers” in their Guidance and Navigation Department. In 1953, Katherine was offered the job, which she immediately accepted.
"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."
From 1953 through 1958, Johnson worked as a computer mathematician. From 1958 until she retired in 1983, she worked as an aerospace technologist. She began her work in the all-male Flight Mechanics Branch and later moved to the Spacecraft Controls Branch. She calculated the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, in 1959. She also calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission. She plotted backup navigational charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. In 1962, when NASA used computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn's orbit around Earth, officials called on her to verify the computer's numbers. Ms. Johnson later worked directly with real computers. Her ability and reputation for accuracy helped to establish confidence in the new technology. She calculated 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 Apollo 13's mission to the Moon. Once the mission was aborted, Johnson's work on backup procedures and charts helped safely return the crew to Earth four days later. Later in her career, she worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on plans for a mission to Mars.
In total, Johnson co-authored 26 scientific papers, of which only one could be found in 2005. (NASA maintains a listing of Johnson's most significant articles with links to its archival search tool to find others.) The practice in 1960 would have been not to list the female contributors as formal co-authors, so that she was listed as an author in a peer-reviewed NASA report is significant:
NASA TND-233, “The Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position” 1960. Authors: T.H. Skopinski, Katherine G. Johnson
Johnson's social impact as a pioneer in space science and computing may be seen both from the honors she has received and the number of times her story is presented as a role model. Since 1979 (before she retired from NASA), Johnson's biography has had an honored place in lists of African-Americans in Science and Technology.
In 1939, she married James Francis Goble and started a family. The Gobles had three daughters: Constance, Joylette, and Katherine. In 1956, James Goble died of an inoperable brain tumor. In 1959, she married Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson and resumed her career as a teacher. She sang in the choir of Carver Presbyterian Church for fifty years.
Johnson and her husband live in Hampton, Virginia, and enjoy spending time with six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Ms. Johnson still plays piano, bridge, and solves puzzles.
Johnson is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.
- 1953–1986 NASA Langley Research Center, Virginia
- 1953–1958 Computer (mathematician), Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)
- 1958–1986, Aerospace Technologist, NASA
- 1952–1953 Substitute math teacher for Newport News, VA, public schools
- 1936–1952 Teacher in rural Virginia and West Virginia high schools and elementary schools
- 1932 - West Virginia State High School
- 1937 - West Virginia State University (was West Virginia State College), BS in Mathematics and French, summa cum laude
- 1940 - West Virginia University graduate program in mathematics
- 2010, Honorary Doctorate of Science from Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia
- 2006, Honorary Doctor of Science by the Capitol College, Laurel, Maryland
- 1999, West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year
- 1998, Honorary Doctor of Laws, from SUNY Farmingdale
- 1986, NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award
- 1985, NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award
- 1984, NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award
- 1980, NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award
- 1971, NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award
- 1967, Apollo Group Achievement Award – this award included one of only 300 flags flown to the moon on board the Apollo 11
- 1967, NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team award – for pioneering work in the field of navigation problems supporting the five spacecraft that orbited and mapped the moon in preparation for the Apollo program
- “Oral History Archive: Katherine Johnson”, 2005, National Visionary Leadership Project.
- “She Was a Computer When Computers Wore Skirts”, by: Jim Hodges, published by NASA Langley, 2008
- Human Computers; Katherine G. Johnson
- NASA TND-233, “The Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position” 1960. Authors: T.H. Skopinski, Katherine G. Johnson
- Katherine G. Johnson, Human Computer
- “black history... katherine g johnson (1918 - retired)”, UK-based Planet Science
- “Katherine G. Johnson: Physicist, Space Scientist, Mathematician” Oracle Think Quest Education Foundation Library
- Vivian Ovelton Sammons, Blacks In Science And Medicine, 1989 (Taylor & Francis), ISBN 0-89116-665-3
- Katherine Johnson, Computer and Pioneer December 23, 2009, Katysblog
- “BLACK CONTRIBUTORS TO SCIENCE AND ENERGY TECHNOLOGY” 1979, anonymous, U.S. Department Of Energy U.S. Government Printing Office (ERIC electronic document)
- “BLACK CONTRIBUTORS TO SCIENCE AND ENERGY TECHNOLOGY” 1979, anonymous, U.S. Department Of Energy U.S. Government Printing Office (manually scanned images)
- Live, Learn, Pursue Passion - NASA Mathematician preps Class of 2006 to find its mission, Capitol Chronicle, Summer 2006, Capitol College (12 pages, PDF format)
- African-American Registry, August 26, Katherine G. Johnson (2006)
- Personal communication, 2009, NASA