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Katherine Goble Johnson

You may have first heard about Katherine Goble Johnson when the movie Hidden Figures was released in late 2016. Born before the time of the internet and laptops, she was known as a “computer” at Langely Research center. When she started, her job was to analyze, but eventually, her calculations led to sending Americas first astronaut into space.

Katherine Johnson was born in West Virginia on August 26th, 1918. A brilliant girl, she was fascinated by numbers and quickly skipped grades during her education and was years ahead of kids her age. However, in the town of White Sulphur Springs, black children could not get an education beyond junior high. Because of this, her family moved over 100 miles away so she and her siblings could have the opportunity to attend high school.1 By the time she was 10 years old, she was in high school, and by the age of 15 she entered college at West Virginia State College.1a, 2 While this is an amazing feat it of itself, she made quick work of the curriculum and graduated summa cum laude in 1937, at the age of 18.1a After graduation, she became a teacher, and two years later was one of three black students to be offered a spot in the mathematics graduate program in the all-white West Virginia University.3 It wasn’t until after the 1938 Supreme Court ruling that black students were able to enroll in white colleges.4

 At the end of the first semester, Katherine decided to start a family with her first husband, James Goble, and left her graduate program. She gave birth to three girls, and returned to teaching.5 In 1952 she learned about an opportunity at the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA). At a time still heavily controlled by Jim Crow Laws, she joined a team of all-black all-female “human computers” under the guidance of mathematician Dorothy Vaughan.1a, 3 There, her talents were clearly recognized as she moved from her temporary position to a permanent one, and was assigned to the Flight Research Division where she spent 4 years analyzing data from flight tests. Unfortunately, her first husband also passed during this time.5

In October 1957, the world advanced as the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I, and the space race intensified between the USA and Russia. Engineers, mathematicians, and scientists came together to form the “Space Task Force” and NACA was officially changed to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.1b During her time, she had contributed to “Notes on Space Technology” and the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission.3, 5 Katherine Johnson was officially credited for her work in the report, “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position” and was the first woman in her division to be given credit.3, 6

Her pioneering work helped drive the United States space program forward. In 1962, as NASA was preparing for the orbital mission of John Glenn, electronic computer systems were becoming more advanced and they were planning on using a worldwide communications network to help with the mission. However, the latest technology had some astronauts wary of the accuracy of the electronic calculations, and Glenn asked Katherine to double check the system. He stated, “if she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”5

Katherine Goble Johnson is a testimony to hard work and dedication, and the curiosity that drives us. The obstacles she faced, racism and bigotry, segregation, and the death of her first husband, must have been taxing and difficult to endure. Her calculations helped propel the USA into space which in turn helped to accelerate our understanding of the world beyond our own. In recent years, she has finally been recognized for her outstanding achievements and received many awards. In 2015, Katherine G. Johnson was awarded the Presidential Metal of Freedom by President Barak Obama. She also received a Silver Snoopy Award in 2016 and Congressional Gold Metals in 2019.1a Katherine Johnson died on February 24, 2020 at the age of 101. Although she is gone, she continues to serve as an inspiration and her life’s work is celebrated.  We recommend watching the movie Hidden Figures to learn more about Katherine Johnson and the other amazing black women who were involved in the space program.

Written by Magenta Hensinger
Edited by Rebecca Bogart and Lily Tatusko

1.         (a) Malcom, S. M., Katherine Johnson (1918–2020). Science 2020, 386, 591; (b) Hodges, J. She Was a Computer When Computers Wore Skirts. https://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/news/researchernews/rn_kjohnson.html (accessed 6/10/2020).

2.         May, S. Who Was Katherine Johnson? https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/stories/nasa-knows/who-was-katherine-johnson-k4.

3.         Shetterly, M. L., Katherine Johnson (1918–2020). Nature 2020, 570, 341.

4.         Hostuttler, L. Preserving the History of WVU’s First African-American Graduates. https://news.lib.wvu.edu/2017/11/13/preserving-the-history-of-wvus-first-african-american-graduates/ (accessed 6/10/2020).

5.         Shetterly, M. L. Katherine Johnson Biography. https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography (accessed 6/10/2020).

6.         Skopinski, T. H.; Johnson, K. G., Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position. NASA, Ed. NASA: Langley Research Center, 1960; Vol. D-233.

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