Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson 

Katherine Johnson, featured in the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly and portrayed in the movie of the same name by Taraji P. Henson, was known for her precise calculations of trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for many of the early NASA missions.

Johnson was born Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, Greenbrier County, West Virginia, the daughter of Joshua and Joylette Coleman. She was the youngest of four children. Johnson showed a talent for math from an early age. Johnson graduated high school at 14 and entered West Virginia State. As a student, she took every math course offered by the college. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937, with degrees in Mathematics and French, at age 18.

After starting a family, Johnson took on a teaching job at a Black public school in Marion, Virginia. After teaching for seven years, Johnson went to work as a pool mathematician or “computer” for the Langley Research Center, in 1953. Johnson worked on the early space program, including computing the launch window for astronaut  Alan Shepard’s and John Glenn’s orbits around the earth.

Johnson recalled that era: “We needed to be assertive as women in those days – assertive and aggressive – and the degree to which we had to be that way depending on where you were. I had to be. In the early days of NASA, women were not allowed to put their names on the reports – no woman in my division had had her name on a report.” 

Author Margot Lee Shetterly stated, "So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this Black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success." She added that, in a time where computing was "women's work" and engineering was left to men, "It really does have to do with us over the course of time sort of not valuing that work that was done by women, however necessary, as much as we might. And it has taken history to get a perspective on that. 

Johnson calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo flight to the moon. In 1970,  she worked on the Apollo 13 moon mission. When the mission was aborted, her work on backup procedures and charts helped set a safe path for the crew's return to Earth, creating a one-star observation system that would allow astronauts to determine their location with accuracy. In a 2010 interview, Johnson recalled, "Everybody was concerned about them getting there. We were concerned about them getting back.”

While working in NASA’s Flight Dynamics Branch at LRC,  Johnson helped author the first textbook on space. Later in her career, she worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on plans for a mission to Mars. In total, Katherine Johnson authored or co-authored 26 scientific papers.  

She married James F. Goble in 1939. To this union, three daughters were born: Joylette, Constance, and Katherine. Mr. Goble died in 1956 and Constance in 2010. In 1959, Katherine married Lieutenant Colonel James A. Johnson.

Johnson retired in 1986, after thirty-three years at Langley. “I loved going to work every single day,” she says. She and her husband have enjoyed over 59 years of work and travel, and in retirement, they are residing in Newport News, VA.,  and enjoying their six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. 

In 2015, at age 97, Katherine Johnson added another extraordinary achievement to her long list of awards: President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. Also, in September of 2017, NASA held a ribbon cutting ceremony of the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, with the Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe in attendance.

Katherine Johnson is noted for her humility, determination, vision, and commitment to excellence. She tutored students both young and adults, and never charged a fee.

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