Katherine Goebel Johnson (neé Coleman)
August 26, 1918 – Present
The remarkable life of Katherine Coleman began with her birth in August of 1918, just three months before the official end of World War One. It was an interesting time for her arrival, as many new inventions resulted from that conflict that set the stage for the coming space technologies upon which Katherine would make her mark. According to Eric Sass’s article, 12 Technological Advancements of World War I, airplanes, air traffic control, and aircraft carriers made their commercial debuts. Each of these technologies was founded upon the tenets of physics and mathematics, the latter, the specialty of Ms. Coleman.
From an early age, Katherine showed remarkable promise. At the age of thirteen, her parents enrolled her in the high school located on the West Virginia State College campus. By 18, she was attending the college itself, where she graduated in 1937 with honors. Just two years later, while working as a teacher, West Virginia desegregated its schools. As such, Katherine was chosen as the only African American woman to be given a spot in the West Virginia University Graduate Program for Mathematics. Her tenure there, however, was short-lived. After only a semester, Katherine departed the program to start a family with her first husband, Mr. Goebel. The two had three daughters together.
It was in 1952, at a family gathering, that Katherine learned of a job opening in the all-black West Area Computing Section of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’s (NACA), the predecessor for NASA, Langley Laboratory. She got the job, and in the summer of 1953, she and her husband moved their family from West Virginia to Langley, Virginia. Within weeks, Katherine was promoted to the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division. For four years she helped analyze data from flight tests and wake turbulence. Her achievements there were groundbreaking in respects to scientific innovation, gender roles, and race relations.
In 1955, 802 miles away, in Montgomery Alabama, Rosa Parks was smashing her own barriers, just as Katherine was doing in her world. The following year was one of misfortune, however for Katherine and her family, with the premature passing of her husband from cancer. While facing that tragedy at home, another was brewing in her professional world, when the Russian’s launched the Sputnik Space Satellite in 1957, beating the American’s to space and starting what became known as The Space Race. In 1959, she found, and eventually married, the man who would become her husband of over a half century, Corporal Jim Johnson.
In the years that followed Katherine was a valuable member of the mathematical team that provided the data for NASA’s successes including: the launch and trajectory data for Allan Sheppherd’s May 1961 Freedom Mission 7 space flight, John Glenn’s 1962 Friendship 7 Mission, the synching of the Apollo Lunar Lander with the Moon Orbiting Command Module, the Space Shuttle, and the Earth Resources Satellite. Her calculations and report on the landing positions of spacecraft co-authored in 1960 was the first time, that a woman in the flight research division had attained such an accomplishment and was so respected that John Glenn said he would only commence the Friendship 7 space flight if Katherine said the “numbers were good.” Over the course of her career, she would not only go on to author over twenty-five more highly-respected reports but gain a spot at the all-male pre-flight meetings as a peer.
After over three decades of service, Katherine Goebel Johnson retired in 1986. In 2015, at the age of 97, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our country’s highest civilian honor.