Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (born August 26, 1918) is an African American physicist and mathematician who made contributions to the United States’ aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA. Known for accuracy in computerized celestial navigation, she conducted technical work at NASA that spanned decades. During this time, she calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for many flights from Project Mercury, including the early NASA missions of John Glenn and Alan Shepard, and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon, through the Space Shuttle program.Her calculations were critical to the success of these missions.Johnson also did calculations for plans for a mission to Mars.
In 2015, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was included in the BBC series 100 Women the next year
Katherine Coleman (aka “The Human Computer”) was born in 1918, to Joshua and Joylette Coleman in White Sulphur Springs, Greenbrier County, West Virginia. She was the youngest of four children.Her father was a lumberman, farmer, and handyman and worked at the Greenbrier Hotel. Her mother was a former teacher.Her parents emphasized the importance of education.
Coleman showed a talent for math from an early age. Because Greenbrier County did not offer public schooling for African-American students past the eighth grade, the Coleman parents arranged for their children to attend high school in Institute, West Virginia at 13 years old. The family split their time between Institute during the school year and White Sulphur Springs in the summer.
Coleman graduated from high school at age 14. At age 18, she began attending West Virginia State College, a historically black college. As a student, Coleman took every math course the college offered which she made quick work of. Multiple professors took Coleman under their wings, including chemist and mathematician Angie Turner King, who had mentored the girl throughout high school, and W.W. Schiefflin Claytor, the third African American to receive a PhD in math. Claytor added new math courses just for Coleman. Coleman graduated summa cum laude in 1937, with the highest honors, in degrees math and French, at age 18. She took on a teaching job at a black public school in Virginia.
In 1939, Coleman became the first African-American woman to desegregate the graduate school at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. Through WVSC’s president, Dr. John W. Davis, she became one of three African-American students,and the only female, selected to integrate the graduate school after the United States Supreme Court ruling Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938). The court ruled that states that provided public higher education to white students also had to provide it to black students, to be satisfied either by establishing black colleges and universities or by admitting black students to previously white-only universities. She left her teaching job and enrolled in the graduate math program, but she quit this after one session, choosing to start a family with her husband.
Johnson decided on a career in mathematics as a research mathematician, although this was a difficult field for African Americans and women to enter. The first jobs she found were in teaching. It was not until 1952, at a family gathering, that a relative mentioned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring mathematicians. (It was superseded by the agency NASA in 1958.) At the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, based in Hampton, Virginia near Langley Field, NACA hired African-American mathematicians as well as whites for their Guidance and Navigation Department. Johnson was offered a job in 1953. She accepted and became part of the early NASA team.
According to an oral history archived by the National Visionary Leadership Project:
At first she [Johnson] worked in a pool of women performing math calculations. Katherine has referred to the women in the pool as virtual ‘computers who wore skirts.’ Their main job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other precise mathematical tasks. Then one day, Katherine (and a colleague) were temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team. Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male bosses and colleagues to the extent that, “they forgot to return me to the pool.” While the racial and gender barriers were always there, Katherine says she ignored them. Katherine was assertive, asking to be included in editorial meetings (where no women had gone before.) She simply told people she had done the work and that she belonged.
From 1953 through 1958, Johnson worked as a “computer,” analyzing topics such as gust alleviation for aircraft. Originally assigned to the West Area Computers section supervised by mathematician Dorothy Vaughan, Johnson was reassigned to the Guidance and Control Division of Langley’s Flight Research Division. It was staffed by white male engineers.
In keeping with state racial segregation laws, and federal workplace segregation introduced under President Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century, Johnson and the other African-American women in the computing pool were required to work, eat, and use restrooms that were separate from those of their white peers. Their office was labeled as “Colored Computers.” NACA disbanded the colored computing pool in 1958 when it was superseded by NASA, which adopted digital computers. The installation was desegregated.
From 1958 until her retirement in 1986, Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist, moving during her career to the Spacecraft Controls Branch. She calculated the trajectory for the May 5, 1961 space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. She also calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission.She plotted backup navigational charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth, officials called on Johnson to verify the computer’s numbers; Glenn had asked for her by name and refused to fly unless she verified the calculations. Biography.com states these were “far more difficult calculations, to account for the gravitational pulls of celestial bodies.”
Johnson later worked directly with digital computers. Her ability and reputation for accuracy helped to establish confidence in the new technology.She calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. During the moon landing, Johnson was at a meeting in the Pocono Mountains. She and a few others crowded around a small television screen watching the first steps on the moon. In 1970, Johnson worked on Apollo 13’s mission to the Moon. Once the mission was aborted, her work on backup procedures and charts helped safely return the crew to Earth.Later in her career, she worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite,and on plans for a mission to Mars.
In 1939, Katherine Coleman married James Francis Goble. They had three daughters: Constance, Joylette, and Katherine. In 1953, she and James moved their family to Newport News to pursue her new job opportunity. In 1956, James Goble died of an inoperable brain tumor.
In 1959, Katherine Goble married Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson. She continued her career at NASA. She sang in the choir of Carver Presbyterian Church for fifty years. She has been a member since college of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, the first sorority established by and for African-American women. Johnson and her husband, who have six grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren, live in Hampton, Virginia. She continues to encourage her grandchildren and students to pursue careers in science and technology.