Katherine G. Johnson, born Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia was a bright child with a gift for numbers, she breezed through her classes and completed the eighth grade by age 10. Katherine Johnson enrolled at West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University) in Institute, West Virginia. There was one professor named Dr. William W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics, who was determined to prepare Katherine Johnson to become a research mathematician. At age 18, she graduated summa cum laude with degrees in mathematics and French. The following year she became one of three students to desegregate West Virginia University’s graduate school in Morgantown. She was the first African American woman to attend graduate school. However, she found the environment less welcoming than it had been in Institute, and never completed her program there. She was also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
Beginning in the late 1930s, Katherine Johnson taught math and French at schools in Virginia and West Virginia. In 1952, she learned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring African American women to serve as “computers;” namely, people who performed and checked calculations for technological developments. She applied, and the following year she was accepted for a position at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. After only two weeks, Katherine Johnson was transferred from the African American computing pool to Langley’s flight research division, where she talked her way into meetings and earned additional responsibilities. She achieved success despite difficulties at home: In 1956, her husband died of a brain tumor. She later remarried decorated Navy and Army officer James A. Johnson.
In 1958, after NACA was reformulated into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Katherine Johnson was among the people charged with determining how to get a human into space and back. The calculating of space flight came down to the basics of geometry and the task of plotting the path for Alan Shepard’s 1961 journey to space, the first in American history, fell on her shoulders.
While the work of electronic computers took on increased importance at NASA, Katherine Johnson remained highly valuable for her unwavering accuracy. She performed calculations for the historic 1969 Apollo 11 trip to the moon, and the following year, when Apollo 13 experienced a malfunction in space, her contributions to contingency procedures helped ensure its safe return. Katherine Johnson continued to serve as a key asset for NASA, helping to develop its Space Shuttle program and Earth Resources Satellite, until her retirement in 1986.
In November 2015, President Barack Obama presented Katherine with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race celebrated the little-known story of Johnson and her fellow African American computers. It was also turned into an Oscar-nominated feature film, Hidden Figures (2016), starring actress Taraji P. Henson as Johnson.
A year later, in September 2017, 99-year-old Katherine was honored by NASA, with the dedication of a new research building which is named after her — the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. She along with her family and friends were at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new building which is part of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. When asked to give her advice to NASA employees who will follow in her footsteps and work in the new building named after her, Johnson simply said: “Like what you do and then you will do your best.”
Katherine Johnson passed away on Feb 24, 2020.