Katherine Johnson

(August 26, 1918 - Present)


Teacher - Mathmetician - Physicist

Biography


Katherine Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in 1918. She’s known for her mathematical contributions to history-making discoveries by NASA (formerly NACA) during the Space Race.

All done by hand, Johnson assured that the calculations for John Glenn’s orbital flight in 1962 were precise. After having worked at NASA for 33 years, Johnson is receiving the recognition she deserves.

Life Through Katherine Johnson's Eyes


Timeline


  • 1918 - Born in segregated White Sulphur Springs, WV
  • 1937 - Graduated from West Virginia State College with a B.S. in Mathematics and French
  • 1939 - Marries James Francis Goble
  • 1952 - Relative informs Katherine of open positions at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory
  • 1953 - Moves to Newport News, VA with James Goble and their three children to begin working at NACA
  • 1953 - James Goble dies of brain tumor
  • 1959 - Remarries to James A. Johnson who was a Second Lieutenant in the Army and a veteran of the Korean war
  • 1960 - Starts being recognized on official NASA technical reports. “It was the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had received credit as an author of a research report.”
  • 1986 - Retired from NASA
  • 2015 - Johnson is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • 2016 - Hidden Figures book published
  • 2017 - Hidden Figure movie released
  • 2017 - NASA dedicates its newest Computational Research Facility to Katherine G. Johnson

At NASA


Katherine Johnson was hired by NACA in June 1953. She worked at NASA during a time when the United States was still segregated and very much so sexist toward women. Johnson was raised in a town where black women could not go to school past the eighth grade. Johnson still has a hard time grasping what all the fuss is about when referring to her great accomplishments she replies, “There’s nothing to it - I was just doing my job.”

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Family


Katherine Johnson’s mother, Joylette Coleman, was a teacher and her father, Joshua Coleman, was a farmer who worked additional jobs including janitorial work. Katherine Johnson was the youngest of four children. Even though Katherine’s father left school after sixth grade, he encouraged education for his four children. In White Sulphur Springs, black kids were only allowed to attend up to the eighth grade so Joshua Coleman enrolled his children in a school 125 miles away.

Katherine Johnson married James Francis Goble in 1939. They had three daughters: Constance, Joylette and Katherine. James Goble passed away in 1956 from a brain tumor. In 1959, Katherine Johnson re-married to James A. Johnson.

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Presidential Medal of Freedom


In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Katherine Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the United States’ highest civilian honor. Johnson was awarded for a hugely influential career in mathematics that played a role in every major U.S. space program, from Alan Shepard’s first space flight up through the Space Shuttle.

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Computational Research Facility


On September 22, 2017, NASA dedicated its newest Computational Research Facility to Katherine Johnson. Shetterly was the keynote speaker at the dedication, and had this to say about Johnson's legacy: "By now, most of us know the details of the work that Katherine Johnson did here at NASA; we know about the calculations she provided for Alan Shepard's flight [the first American to fly in space], the calculations she provided for John Glenn's pioneering orbital flight. We know about the math that she contributed to the parking orbit calculations for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon," she said. "Today, all of those things seem inevitable, but without her past, full of diverging roads and choices that made all the difference, we would not be standing on the brink of this future," Shetterly added.

Johnson did not give a speech at the opening ceremony but there was a video interveiw of her played. "The main thing is, I liked what I was doing," she said in the video. "I liked work. I liked the stars and the stories we were telling. And it was a joy to contribute to the literature that was going to be coming out. But little did I think that it would go this far."

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No Longer Hidden


On September 6, 2016 the book Hidden Figures was published, uncovering one of the greatests stories of black women at NASA. The book was then adapted into film and released to the world on January 6, 2017 making an even bigger presence for these women.

“Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program—and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now.

Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine.

Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world—and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.”

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