Women and Adversity: Katherine Johnson
Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient
Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson turns 99 August 26, which coincidentally is Women’s Equality Day. (Bella Abzug, a representative from New York, requested Congress give the designation to that day. It became effective in 1973.) The book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Mathematicians Who Helped Win The Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly and the movie Hidden Figures recounts Katherine’s contributions to the space program along with those of Mary Winston Jackson and Dorothy Johnson Vaughan.
Katherine Coleman was born in White Sulphur Springs, WVA in 1918. She was ready for high school when she was 10, but White Sulphur Springs didn’t offer classes for African Americans. Her father decided to move the family to Institute, WVA so Katherine could continue her education. She graduated high school at age 14 and received her Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics and French from West Virginia State College at 18.
The next year she was chosen as one of three students to integrate West Virginia University’s graduate school at Morgantown, but she found the atmosphere oppressive and didn’t finish her academic program.
In 1939 she married James Francis Goble. The couple had three daughters, Joylette, Katherine and Constance.
Katherine taught at black public schools in Virginia and West Virginia until 1953 when she began working for National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at Langley Research Center’s Guidance and Navigational Department in Hampton, VA. NACA was the predecessor of National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA). Her title, along with other women, was “computer.” She was instructed to determine how to get a person into space and back.
In 1956 James died of a brain tumor, but Katherine continued to work at NACA. She not only calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, but even after the use of electronic computers, John Glenn requested that Katherine recheck the computer’s calculations before his flight aboard Friendship 7, the mission on which he became the first American to orbit earth.
In 1959 Katherine married Lt. Col. James Johnson, a decorated veteran, who served in the Navy during WWII and in the Army during the Korean War. She worked at NASA until 1986. Her calculations were crucial to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program.
She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, the highest civilian award in the U.S., from President Barack Obama.
Katherine lives in Virginia.
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