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Woman in Science: Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson

Photo courtesy of NASA

Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in 1918, Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson is an African-American physicist and mathematician who made significant contributions to the United States’ aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA. From an early age, Johnson showed a talent for mathematics. However, because Greenbrier Country (where she grew up) did not offer public schooling for African-American students past the eighth grade, Johnson’s parents arranged for their children to attend high school in Institute, Virginia. After graduating at the tender age of 14, Johnson enrolled in West Virginia State College, where she graduated summa cum laude at the age of 18.

The following year, Johnson became one of three African-American students to desegregate West Virginia University’s graduate school. However, because of the unwelcoming atmosphere, Johnson never completed the program there.

Beginning in the late 1930s, Johnson taught math and French at schools in Virginia and West Virginia. In 1939, she married James Francis Goble, with whom she had three daughters: Joylette, Katherine, and Constance. In 1952, Johnson learned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring African-Americans women to serve as “computers”; namely, people who performed and checked calculations for technological developments. Johnson applied, and the following year she was accepted at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Photo courtesy of NASA

In keeping with the state racial segregation laws and the federal legislation produced under President 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 the “Colored Computers.” In an interview with WHRO-TV, Johnson stated that she “didn’t feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job … and play bridge at lunch.” She added, “I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.”

Johnson later remarried to decorated Navy and Army officer James A. Johnson. While the work of electronic computers took on increased importance at NASA, Johnson remained highly valuable for her unwavering accuracy in computerized celestial navigation and 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. The following year, when Apollo 13 experienced a malfunction in space, her contributions to contingency procedures helped ensure its safe return. Johnson also did calculations for plans for a mission to Mars.

In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then President Barack Obama. The following May NASA opened a $30 million, 40,000-square-foot Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in Langley, Virginia.

By Neha Wadhwana’18, Guest Writer

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