Born August 26, 1918 (age 97)
White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, West Virginia, U.S.
Residence Hampton, Virginia
Fields Mathematics, computer science
Institutions NACA, NASA
Alma mater West Virginia State University
Known for contributions to America's aeronautics and space advances
Katherine G. Johnson (born August 26, 1918) is an American physicist, space scientist, and mathematician who contributed to America's aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA. Known for accuracy in computerized celestial navigation, she calculated the trajectory for Project Mercury and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon.
3 Personal life
4 Experience summary
Dissatisfied with teaching, Johnson decided on a career in mathematics. At a family gathering, a relative mentioned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), later to become NASA, was looking for new people. They especially wanted African American women for their Guidance and Navigation Department. Johnson was offered a job in 1953, and she immediately accepted.
According to oral history archived by the National Visionary Leadership Project:
"At first she 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", doing analysis for topics such as gust alleviation for aircraft. Originally assigned to the West Area Computers section which was supervised by mathematician Dorothy Vaughan, she was reassigned to the Guidance and Control Division of Langley's Flight Research Division. From 1958 until she retired in 1983, she worked as an aerospace technologist. She later moved to the Spacecraft Controls Branch. She calculated the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, in 1959. She also calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission. She plotted backup navigational charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. In 1962, when NASA used computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn's orbit around Earth, officials called on her to verify the computer's numbers. Ms. 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, Johnson's work on backup procedures and charts helped safely return the crew to Earth four days later. 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, Johnson co-authored 26 scientific papers, of which only one could be found in 2005. (NASA maintains a listing of Johnson's most significant articles with links to its archival search tool to find others.) The practice in 1960 would have been not to list the female contributors as formal co-authors, so that she was listed as an author in a peer-reviewed NASA report is significant:
NASA TND-233, “The Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position” 1960. Authors: T.H. Skopinski, Katherine G. Johnson
Johnson's social impact as a pioneer in space science and computing may be seen both from the honors she has received and the number of times her story is presented as a role model. Since 1979 (before she retired from NASA), Johnson's biography has had an honored place in lists of African-Americans in Science and Technology. On November 16, 2015, President Barack Obama included Johnson on a list of 17 Americans to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
In 1939, she married James Francis Goble and started a family. The Gobles had three daughters: Constance, Joylette, and Katherine. In 1956, James Goble died of an inoperable brain tumor. In 1959, she married Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson and resumed her career as a teacher. She sang in the choir of Carver Presbyterian Church for fifty years. Johnson and her husband live in Hampton, Virginia.
Johnson is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.
1953–1986 NASA Langley Research Center, Virginia
1953–1958 Computer (mathematician), Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)
1958–1986, Aerospace Technologist, NASA
1952–1953 Substitute math teacher for Newport News, VA, public schools
1936–1952 Teacher in rural Virginia and West Virginia high schools and elementary schools
1932 - West Virginia State High School
1937 - West Virginia State University (was West Virginia State College), BS in Mathematics and French, summa cum laude
1940 - West Virginia University graduate program in mathematics
2015, Presidential Medal of Freedom
2010, Honorary Doctorate of Science from Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia
2006, Honorary Doctor of Science by the Capitol College, Laurel, Maryland
1999, West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year
1998, Honorary Doctor of Laws, from SUNY Farmingdale
1986, NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award
1985, NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award
1984, NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award
1980, NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award
1971, NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award
1967, Apollo Group Achievement Award – this award included one of only 300 flags flown to the moon on board the Apollo 11
1967, NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team award – for pioneering work in the field of navigation problems supporting the five spacecraft that orbited and mapped the moon in preparation for the Apollo program