A mathematician, physicist, and space scientist, Katherine Johnson (born 1918) was working at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) when she was asked to calculate the trajectory for the first trip to the moon. It was an era before computers, and Johnson's work was so accurate that she was asked to double-check computer calculations, such as those guiding John Glenn's pioneering orbital flight and the life-saving return trajectory for Apollo 13. Born to working-class African-American parents in 1918, Johnson broke through numerous racial and gender barriers to serve the U.S. space program in a distinguished capacity, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 in recognition of her achievements.
Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on August 26, 1918, to black, working-class parents who believed in the value of education. In her small home town, there was no high school for black students, so each September, Johnson, together with her sister and two brothers, would move 130 miles west to the city of Institute, to attend the high school attached to all-black West Virginia State College. This was no small undertaking for her father, a farmer and lumberman, and her mother, a former teacher. Her father took a job in Sulphur Springs's Greenbrier Hotel during the school year to support the effort, while her mother kept house for the children in Institute, bringing them home for the summers.
West Virginia State College and its high school strongly focused on mentoring. In grade school, Johnson had been an exceptional pupil with an extraordinary aptitude in math; allowed to skip grades, she started high school at age ten and graduated at 14. Matriculating at the college, she took every math course offered, as well as studying advanced subjects under the guidance of her professors. She also studied English and French, and in 1937 the 18-year-old Johnson graduated summa cum laude in French and mathematics.
Other than the teaching professions, career opportunities were limited for women and minorities during the early 20th century. Johnson found work in Marion, Virginia, teaching math, French, and music at a local grade school. Wanting to expand her knowledge, Johnson decided to undertake graduate school, and she became the first African-American woman admitted to West Virginia University, where she pursued studies in research mathematics. During that time, she met and married James Goble and started a family.
More than a decade passed, as Johnson and her husband raised three daughters and she taught grade school and Sunday school. During a family gathering in 1953, she learned that NACA was seeking African-American women to work as “computers.” Electronic computers were not yet in use in the program, and it took hundreds of people to create and calculate, or compute, the equations needed in NACA's flight research. Johnson jumped at the chance to do mathematics for a living.
Her new job had its roots in World War II, with its massive production of war planes and constant need for the improved designs, and thus constant testing. The basic calculations for wind-tunnel testing were tedious, precise, and never-ending. The black boxes from airplanes also needed to be read and data collected, another task requiring precision. With shortages in manpower due to the war, women mathematicians were hired to do this work. While men doing such work were considered professionals, women computers were categorized as sub-professional and paid less accordingly.
The program was so successful that the pool of computers at NACA was expanded to include African-American women. These new employees, called “colored computers,” were part of the mathematical labor pool, though until 1958, they worked in a segregated section, with its own set of facilities, and were loaned out to other divisions as needed. Soon after arriving, Johnson was loaned to the Flight Research Division for her initial assignment, but the division never sent her back to the pool. Her talent with analytical geometry was rare, and she proved a valuable asset to the research and calculations required in accomplishing NACA's first space flight. Meanwhile, a few years after starting her new job, Johnson's husband died of a brain tumor. She continued raising their daughters and in 1959 married Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson.
Persistence paid off, however, as did Johnson's stellar work. She queried her male counterparts in detail about briefings and was not shy about suggesting that she be present. At one point, a man who had co-authored one of her reports stood up to a boss who wanted her name excluded from the document, arguing that he was transferring away, and besides, Johnson had done most of the work. That report, which provided the theoretical basis for launching, tracking, and returning space vehicles, was the first to have a woman's name on it. Johnson co-authored, with credit, many more papers during her 33 years at NASA, many of which are now housed in the organization's reference library.
Among Johnson's most visible contributions to the space program were calculating the elegantly successful trajectories accomplished by the first space flights, and for verifying the first electronically computed flight plans. She calculated the trajectory and launch windows for astronaut Alan Shepard's first flight in May of 1961, when he became the first man in space, and astronaut John Glenn insisted that Johnson verify the first machine-generated, electronic computer calculations for his Friendship 7 mission in February of 1962, making him the first American to orbit Earth. He refused to fly unless Johnson corroborated the computer's work, which she did. She calculated the flight path for Apollo 11's moon landing six years later, and also worked on emergency procedures used to bring the illfated Apollo 13 safely home in April of 1970. Johnson continued working with the new digital technology, helping establish trust in computers due to her reputation for precision and accuracy.
Johnson worked for NASA for 33 years, retiring in 1986. In addition to contributing to the success of several moon landings, she had worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite program, and the team planning a mission to Mars. She was given many awards for her achievements as a pioneer of the space program, and she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 in recognition for her pioneering example as an African American in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). In May of 2016, on the 50th anniversary of Shepard's first space flight, a new building at NASA's facility in Langley, Virginia, was dedicated to Johnson: the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.
Shetterly, Margot Lee, Hidden Figures, William Morrow, 2016.
New York Times online, http://www.nytimes.com/ (September 5, 2016), Sara Buckley, “On Being a Black Female Math Whiz during the Space Race.”
Vanity Fair, August 23, 2016, Charles Bolden, “Katherine Johnson, the NASA Mathematician Who Advanced Human Rights with a Slide Rule and Pencil.”