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Katherine Goble Johnson (former: Coleman)

August 26, 1918 - February 24, 2020

2021 Women in Aerospace Conference

Early Life and Education

Katherine G. Johnson (former: Coleman) was born in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia on August 26th, 1918. As the youngest of three other children of Joshua Mckinley Coleman, she was brilliant from the start and was always ahead so much that by 13 she was in high school. She had moved up even past her three years elder brother Charles. High school is also when she gained an interest in astronomy. In her undergraduate career at West Virginia State University, she graduated summa cum laude and majored in not only math, but also French. Katherine was then handpicked to be one of the few black students to attend West Virginia’s graduate school where she studied math. She then took a job teaching at a black elementary public school in West Virginia and Virginia, all of this while fighting the racism of the country at the time. She temporarily left that all to start a family of three daughters with her first husband, James Goble. After her daughters were all grown up, she returned to teaching once again.

“I like to learn. That’s an art and a science.” - Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson during her youth (Credits: NASA)

Rising Reputation

In 1952, Katherine was visiting her relatives when she learned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s - later NASA’s) Langley branch was hiring black women in mathematics/computing and moved to Newport with her husband to pursue the opportunity. At Langley, she worked in the West Area Computing section on a Flight Maneuver research studying wake turbulence to prevent plane crashes. Unfortunately, her husband who had an inoperable cancer brain tumour passed away in December 1956.

Katherine Johnson working at her desk in NASA Langley Research Center (Credits: NASA)

Space Boom - An American Hero

The Space Race began with the launch of the Soviet satellite - Sputnik - in 1957, an event that changed history and Katherine’s life. She did math and trajectory analysis for several papers, lectures, and missions.

“Everything was so new – the whole idea of going into space was new and daring. There were no textbooks, so we had to write them.” - Katherine Johnson

It was while working with the first human orbital mission with John Glenn did she get the moment of recognition that made her famous. Being wary of trusting computer calculations for maneuvers, John Glenn asked Katherine to compute the numbers. He trusted her, and it became a successful turning point in the Space Race. The US had managed to be the first to put a man in orbit. Other projects Katherine worked on include the Space Shuttle program, Mars mission plans, and Project Mercury (first American in space) trajectory and emergency return paths. She also calculated launch windows, and the transfer paths for the Apollo Lunar Module and command module. She built the baseline that allowed for a strong foundation in maneuvers using spaceflight.

Later Life

Facing the struggles of a woman of color honorably, her foundation set forth a new era of space exploration, and she always had a lot of fun doing it.

“The women did what they were told to do. They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.” - Katherine Johnson

Katherine in her later working years (Credits: NASA)

Katherine also remarried to James A. "Jim" Johnson in 1959, a United States Army officer and veteran of the Korean War. A strong believer in STEM education, she always encouraged her family to get an education. Katherine was also a member of Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church and the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. After a successful career and a life filled with new adventures, Katherine died on February 24th, 2020. The words of NASA Administrator James Bridenstine showcase her legacy; “She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten”.

NASA Langley Research Center named a building in Katherine's honor in 2016 (Credits: NASA)

Awards and Accomplishments

  • Wrote math for the “Notes on Space Technology” from the Flight Research Division
  • Coauthored “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position” with Ted Skopinski, first time a woman in the Flight Research Division received credit as an author of a research report (1960)
  • Earned NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award (1971, 1980, 1984, 1985, 1986)
  • NASA Group Achievement Award (1977)
  • Honorary Doctor of Laws, from SUNY Farmingdale (1998)
  • West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year (1999)
  • Honorary Doctor of Science by the Capitol College, Laurel, Maryland (2006)
  • Honorary Doctorate of Science from Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia (2010)
  • De Pizan Honor from National Women's History Museum (2014)
  • NCWIT Pioneer in Tech Award (2015)
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom (2015)
  • Silver Snoopy award from Leland Melvin (2016)
  • Astronomical Society of the Pacific's Arthur B.C. Walker II Award (2016)
  • Presidential Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia (2016)
  • Langley West Computing Unit NASA Group Achievement Award (2016)
  • Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Medal of Honor (2017)
  • Honorary Doctorate from Spelman College (2017)
  • Honorary Doctorate of Science from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia (2018)
  • University of Johannesburg degree of Philosophiae Doctor Honoris causa (2019)
  • Congressional Gold Medal (2019)
  • Induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame (2021)