Many pioneering scientists faced certain obstacles in their work. One such scientist was Katherine Johnson. As a woman and an African American, she overcame racism and sexism to achieve a brilliant career as a NASA mathematician. Her contributions have left a legacy for aspiring scientists today.
Creola Katherine Coleman (also known as Johnson) was born in West Virginia to Joshua and Joylette Coleman on August 26, 1918. Her mother worked as a teacher. Her father was a laborer, farmer, and lumber worker.
Johnson demonstrated a high level of intelligence, as well as an aptitude for mathematics. At 10 years old, Johnson’s family moved 125 miles to Institute, West Virginia, so that she could attend high school. When she was just 14, Johnson graduated high school and enrolled in West Virginia State College, where she earned a BS in mathematics and French.
Johnson wanted to obtain a graduate degree in mathematics. She was one of three students who integrated West Virginia University’s graduate school. Despite her academic aptitude, Johnson was unable to complete her degree due to family demands.
In 1939, Johnson married James Francis Goble, and they had three daughters. After James died in 1953 from brain cancer, she married US Army veteran James “Jim” Johnson. The couple remained together until Jim’s death in 2019.
After graduating from West Virginia State College, Johnson pursued work as a research mathematician. Math and science fields were difficult for women and African Americans to enter, so she taught at elementary and high schools.
In 1952, Johnson heard that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring African-American mathematicians. Johnson applied and received a job offer the following year. She joined a pool of African-American women who performed math calculations in the West Area Computing Group.
Johnson and another colleague from the pool received a temporary assignment to assist the all-male Guidance and Control Division at NACA. Johnson quickly earned the respect of her male bosses and coworkers with her knowledge of analytic geometry.
When she talked about her career, Johnson maintained that she didn’t feel the segregation and the gender biases that existed in the workplace. She didn’t let Jim Crow prejudices hold her back. Johnson asserted her right to be included in meetings. She also insisted on listing her name on the reports she helped write, even though NACA did not allow the inclusion of women’s names on reports at the time.
Johnson’s most notable work included calculating flight paths, emergency return trajectories, and launch windows. Her work contributed to several historical milestones, including astronaut Alan Shepard’s achievement as the first astronaut in space, and Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moonwalk during the Apollo 11 mission.
Later on, Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle program. She also was involved in plans for a future mission to Mars. During her 35 years at NACA and NASA, Johnson earned respect for her complex manual calculations. Nevertheless, she and other accomplished NASA women scientists remained virtually invisible until recently.
Johnson received several honors for her achievements:
- 1999–Alumnus of the Year, West Virginia State College
- 2015–Presidential Medal of Freedom
- 2016–Silver Snoopy Award, presented by NASA astronaut Leland Melvin
- 2019–Congressional Gold Metal
- Several honorary doctoral degrees
Johnson continually encouraged young people to take interest and seek careers in mathematics and science. To the end of her life, Johnson was humble about her role at NASA, claiming she was just doing her job. On February 24, 2020, Johnson died at the age of 101.
In 2018, West Virginia State University founded a scholarship in Johnson’s honor and created a statue of her on campus. That same year, Mattel introduced a Katherine Johnson Barbie Doll. NASA named two facilities in her honor in 2017 and 2019.
Upon Johnson’s passing, NASA’s administrator Jim Bridenstine praised Johnson for her contributions to space exploration. He also credited her for helping to make the study of science and mathematics more accessible to women and people of color.