Today we are talking about a gal who is a math genius. Her calculations were pivotal in getting the first American in space and back home safely. But it didn’t stop there, from the early days of NACA testing airplanes and rocket all the way to the Space Shuttle Program she was there crunching the numbers with pin-point accuracy. Today we’re making math a ton of fun and talking about the life and legacy of your gal, Katherine Johnson.
Learn About Katherine in 2 minutes.
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Katherine was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia as Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918. Her parents were Joshua Coleman and Joylette Coleman. Katherine was the youngest of four children. Katherine’s intelligence and gifting was apparent even at a young age. In her area, there was limited education for African-Americans. Her school only went up to the 8th grade which she completed by the age of ten. There was a school about 120 miles away called the Institute of West Virginia which was on the campus of West Virginia State College. Katherine’s parents sent all of their children to finish high school there. The family split their time between the college and White Sulphur Springs over the summer.
Katherine continued to excel in school, she graduated high school at the young age of 14 and attended West Virginia State College. She took every math course she could. She had multiple professors mentor her. One of her mentors was Angie Turner King the first African-American woman to gain a degree in chemistry and mathematics. Another mentor was Dr. William Claytor who taught her for everything he could think of to prepare her for a career in mathematics.
She graduated college with degrees in French and math at the young age of 18. As soon as she was able to she took a teaching job at a Black public school in Marion, Virginia. The next year Katherine secretly married James Goble in 1939.
Around this time, schools were slowly integrating. Dr. Davis, the president of West Virginia State College, turned down $4 million from West Virginia’s legislature to fund a graduate program for their all Black, segregated school. He did this in hopes that West Virginia University would be compelled to accept black students. And he was right. West Virginia’s governor, Holt, decided not to fight, but to let the integration process move forward. Holt asked Dr. Davis to hand pick three African-American students to integrate. When Dr. Davis explained this to Katherine he said, “I pick you”.
Katherine quit her job and enrolled in school once again. After only a year of attending graduate school, she became pregnant and it became the time to tell the world about her marriage and leave school. Katherine did not at all regret her decision to be at home taking care of her family and often considered herself to be really lucky. Once her children (she would have three daughters) grew older, Katherine went back to teaching math and French.
Katherine heard about NACA hiring black mathematicians from her brother-in-law at a wedding in Virginia. It was the math job she had been waiting for and applied. She started in 1953 and reported to Dorothy Vaughan in the West Area Computers…but she didn’t stay there for long.
Two weeks into her start, a request came from the Flight Research Division was looking for two new computers. Dorothy send Erma Tynes and Katherine. In Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures she talks about Kathryn’s first encounter with the engineers didn’t go the best. Katherine took stock of the busy room, mostly male but not all, and headed for a empty cube of tables by the engineers. She put her stuff down, smiled and then the engineer got up and walked away. Margot writes, “Bemused, Katherine considered the engineer’s sudden departure. The moment that passed between them could have been because she was black and he was white. But then again, it could have been because she was a woman and he was a man. Or maybe the moment was an interaction between a professional and a subprofessional, an engineer and a girl.”
That engineer who disappeared, once he found out she was also from West Virginia, the two became fast friends.
Katherine stayed in Flight Research for a while, so much so that Dorothy noticed Katherine who should be getting her six-month promotion might not because she was not returned to the computer pool. Dorothy had a meeting with Henry Pearson (the branch chief of Flight & Research) and said, “Either give her a raise or send her back to me.” Pearson offered Katherine a permanent position with a raise. There was no way they were sending Katherine back. She asked the right questions and her work was flawless.
Katherine simply loved what she was doing. One of her first assignments involved the crashing of a propeller plane and work needed to be done to figure out why it just fell out of the sky. Her calculations involving analytic geometry with lots of variables. The engineers were able to take her data and test it and find out where the problem happened, why and how to solve it moving forward. She loved that what she was able to do had such a positive outcome for the future.
The Mercury Program was the mission was to put Americans into space. The real goal was to have a man in Earth orbit and return him safely before the Russians. But the truth was the Russians were way ahead of the U.S., hence the beginning of the Space Race.
Katherine at this time was at the Space Task Group it was comprised of many of the engineers from Flight Research. Katherine did the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 Freedom 7 mission, which was the first American spaceflight. A year later when John Glenn was about to embark on their first orbital mission, the IBM computers were being utilized much more as there was many working parts that needed to be precise. IBM’s were tracking stations in Washington D.C., Cape Canaveral and Bermuda all needed to be on the same page. But during a pre-flight check NASA says there was a “hiccup.” When John Glenn was told he asked the engineers to, “get the girl” (meaning Katherine) “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” She checked the same numbers as the IBM by hand, approved them, and John Glenn’s flight was a success.
Katherine helped to calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon. During the landing she was at a meeting in the Pocono Mountains. So she and a few others crowded around a small television screen watching the first steps on the moon.
Katherine worked on the Apollo 13 moon mission. When the spacecraft began to fail and the mission was aborted, her work on backup procedures and charts helped set a safe path for the crew’s return to Earth. She helped create a one-star observation system that would allow astronauts to determine their location with accuracy. With the scattered debris making it hard to tell the difference between a star and debris, Jim Lovell adapted the practice procedures Katherine proposed by using the horizon line as a fixed point for nativation.
In a 2010 interview, Johnson recalled, “Everybody was concerned about them getting there. We were concerned about them getting back.”
The idea of a reusable spacecraft to bring crew and cargo to orbit and back began in 1977. Because this spacecraft was more of a glider to come back to earth it would need to land not in a ocean but on a runway at Kennedy Center or Edwards Air Force Base. We know that Katherine’s trajectories were pin-point accurate to where the crafts would land in the ocean, so we assume her talents were perfect for making sure the Shuttle would not only make it into its correct orbit, but return in the exact spot for the runway landing.
The space shuttle was used from 1981 to 2011. Shuttle missions explored Earth’s climate, measured asteroids in the atmosphere, sent out the Hubble Space Telescope to take pictures of our universe and send them back, and set up a space station where people actually live in outer space.
The Space Shuttle Missions as well as the Earth Resource Satellites launched (both Katherine worked on) looked at earth’s temperatures, its ice caps and oceans, the ozone, the troposphere (the air we breathe) and much more. In fact, the F-Factors for tornadoes was developed because of Langley and the work of space missions and Earth Resource Satellites.
In 1955 doctors discovered a tumor at the base of Jimmy Goble’s skull. It was inoperable. Katherine’s husband would see his health fade but what did not fade was the support and love of his family. Jimmy died five days before Christmas in 1956. Katherine had made a promise to Jimmy that their children’s education and ambition would be the biggest priority.
In 1959, Katherine Goble married James A. Johnson who had been a Second Lieutenant in the Army and was a veteran of the Korean War. The two met at church. He understood Katherine’s job of long hours and highly confidential information.
Katherine sang in the choir of Carver Presbyterian Church for 50 years. She has been a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha since college, the first sorority established by and for African-American women. Johnson and her husband have six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
Katherine received the Presidential Medal of Freedom award. She was honored on November 24, 2015. She was cited as a pioneering example of African-American women in STEM.
Katherine was named West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year in 1999.
In 2016, Katherine was included in the list of “100 Women”, BBC’s list of 100 influential women worldwide. NASA stated, “Her calculations proved as critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program, as they did to those first steps on the country’s journey into space.”
On May 5, 2016, a new large building was named Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility and formally dedicated at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. The facility officially opened its doors on September 22, 2017. Katherine attended this event which marked the 55th anniversary of astronaut Alan Shepard’s historic rocket launch and splashdown, a success Johnson helped achieve. During the event, Katherine also received a Silver Snoopy award; often called the Astronaut’s Award, NASA stated it is given to those, “who have made outstanding contributions to flight safety and mission success”.
Katherine retired from NASA in 1986. She worked at Langley for 33 years. She said in a interview, “I loved going to work every single day.” She also is the only of the Hidden Figures coverage that is still alive today. This August, Kathrine will be 100 years old.
Also In This Series:
- Prologue to The Real Life Gals of Hidden Figures
- Dorothy Vaughn
- Mary Jackson
- Epilogue – Real Life Gals of Hidden Figures
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ABOUT YOUR GAL FRIDAY
Your Gal Friday is a weekly podcast about female leaders, innovators and rule breakers. Your hosts, Dr. Leah Leach & Ms. Phoebe Frear, talk about the life and legacy about a gal as well as what they have learned from her.