Katherine Johnson earned her place in the history of mathematics and the history of space travel through her work as a computer at NASA. She encountered discrimination in her career because of being a woman and African-American, but her skills and expertise enabled her to create a strong legacy that was later recognised with numerous awards.
Katherine Coleman was born on 26 August, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, USA, to Joshua Coleman and Joylette Coleman, née Lowe. William was a farmer, and Joylette had been a teacher before her marriage. Katherine was the youngest of their four children and demonstrated an aptitude for learning from an early age.
When Katherine started school at the age of five, she was put into classes with six-year-old pupils as she could already read and count. When she was eight, a new school opened and she was put into classes with the ten-year-old pupils there. At that time, schools were segregated and there was no high school for African-American pupils in White Sulphur Springs, so the family moved 125 miles (200km) to enable Katherine and her siblings to attend West Virginia State High School. Katherine developed an interest in mathematics thanks to an inspiring teacher, and an interest in astronomy thanks to the principal of the high school who would walk Katherine home on dark evenings and talk about the stars. At the age of 14, Katherine moved to the neighbouring West Virginia State College. In 1937, when she was 18, Katherine graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in French and Mathematics.
Katherine became a teacher in various schools, in both West Virginia and Virginia. She married James Goble in 1939 (they had met at West Virginia State College) and they had three children - daughters named Joylette, Constance and Katherine. Katherine had left her job as a teacher when she married, but in 1940 she was invited to enrol at West Virginia State University to study Mathematics as one of three African-American students (the other two being men) following a Supreme Court ruling in 1938 requiring states to offer the same educational opportunities to black and white people (full desegregation was not initiated until 1954). However, Katherine had to leave the course when James became ill - she returned to teaching to support her family.
In 1952, a relative told Katherine that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) were recruiting women mathematicians to the West Area Computing section of the Langley Laboratory (which consisted only of African-American staff). As a Computer, Katherine worked on data analysis and manual calculations in flight research (making use of the knowledge of analytic geometry that she had gained during her degree studies).
NACA became NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in 1958. In NASA black and white staff were no longer required to eat separately and use separate toilet facilities. However, women were not allowed to attend briefings, or to put their name to reports that they had contributed to. Katherine instead had to ask the men what they had learned in the briefings. She asked questions, including the question about whether there was a law preventing her from attending the briefings, and eventually was allowed in. Katherine also worked on the report1 containing the theory underpinning the USA's first manned spaceflight (when Alan Shepard was launched in Freedom 7 on 5 May, 1961). Katherine said:
I was working with Ted Skopinski and he wanted to leave and go to Houston... but Henry Pearson, our supervisor - he was not a fan of women - kept pushing him to finish the report we were working on. Finally, Ted told him, 'Katherine should finish the report, she's done most of the work anyway.' So Ted left Pearson with no choice; I finished the report and my name went on it, and that was the first time a woman in our division had her name on something.
The report also underpinned John Glenn's orbital spaceflight in Friendship 7 in 1962. The trajectory was calculated using electronic computers, but Glenn asked for 'the girl' Katherine to check the calculations manually - he said, 'If she says they're good, then I'm ready to go.' The mission was a success.
When Katherine retired from NASA in 1986, her 33-year career had included work in support of the Apollo missions and the Space Shuttle. She authored or co-authored 26 reports and contributed to the first textbook about space and the mechanics of spaceflight.
I found what I was looking for at Langley. This was what a research mathematician did... I loved going to work every single day.
James Goble died of a brain tumour in 1956. In 1959 Katherine married James Johnson, an army veteran - they had met in the church where Katherine sang in the choir. James Johnson died in 2019 at the age of 93. Katherine Johnson died on 24 February, 2020 at the age of 101. Katherine's hobbies had included playing bridge and solving puzzles, and she also gave presentations to encourage young people to study science and mathematics.
During her career, Katherine Johnson received five Special Achievement Awards from NASA. After retiring, she received six honorary doctorates including one from West Virginia University in 2016. West Virginia State University installed a statue in her honour, and established a scholarship in her name in 2018. Several buildings have been named in her honour, including NASA's Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. President Barack Obama awarded her the USA's highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2015.
Katherine Johnson was portrayed by Taraji P Henson in the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures (2016). The film included dramatised events from her life, in particular her contribution to the events of 1962, and also featured the work of her colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson at NASA.