“I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.”
-Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson
Katherine Goble Johnson (August 26, 1918-present), a pioneer in American space history is the daughter of Joylette and Joshua Coleman. Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson made the most of limited educational opportunities for African Americans. Johnson loved learning and began her studies in the second grade, then moved into advanced classes. By the age of 10, Johnson was in high school. She graduated from college at the age of 18 and began working in aeronautics as a “computer” in 1952.
In 1939, Katherine (then Coleman) married James Francis Goble. They had three daughters Constance, Joylette, and Katherine. In 1953, she and James moved their family to Newport News to pursue a new job opportunity. In 1956, James Goble died due to an inoperable brain tumor. Katherine Goble remarried in 1959 to James A. Johnson, who had been a Second Lieutenant in the Army and was a veteran of the Korean War.
Johnson began working for NASA in 1953. She started as one of the women who worked on problems assigned from the engineers in what was then the Guidance and Control Branch. She performed the calculations that sent astronauts into orbit in the early 1960s and to the moon in 1969. Johnson’s computations have influenced every major space program from Mercury through the Shuttle. She even calculated the flight path for the first American mission space.
On May 5, 2016, a new 40,000-square-foot building was named in her honor. The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility was formally dedicated at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. She attended this event which marked the 55th anniversary of astronaut Alan Shepard’s historic rocket launch and splashdown, a landmark success that Johnson helped achieve.
In 2015, President Barack Obama presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, citing her as a pioneering example of African-American women in STEM. The highly acclaimed film Hidden Figures based on the non-fiction book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly follows the career of Katherine Johnson and other female African-American mathematicians (Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan) who worked at NASA.
For her contributions to the United States’ aeronautics and space programs, we salute Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson as we celebrate National Women’s History Month.