February 5, 2017
The National Society of Black Physicists honors Katherine Johnson.
Katherine “The Human Computer” Johnson (Coleman) was born on August 26, 1918. She is an African American physicist and mathematician who is known for her accuracy in computerized celestial navigation that helped calculate the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for many flights from Project Mercury and the Space Shuttle Program. Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, she was recognized early in her youth for her remarkable gift with numbers and was promoted to several grades ahead. At the age of 13 she began attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. After graduating college at the age of 14, she began attending the college studying under the mentorship of math professor W.W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a PhD in Mathematics. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937 with a degree in math. After graduating, Johnson (Coleman) began teaching at a public school in Virginia. In 1939, she was handpicked by West Virginia State’s president to be one of three black students to integrate West Virginia University. After a year of study, she decided to leave the school, marry her first husband John Goble and start a family (she has three daughters). [Goble died in 1956 of an inoperable brain tumor and Katherine remarried Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson in 1959.] In 1953, Katherine and her family relocated to Newport News, Virginia, where she began working at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory (now known as NASA), headed by fellow West Virginian Dorothy Vaughan. In the wake of the 1957 launch of the Soviet’s satellite Sputnik, the United States government, but pressure on NASA to make it into space. Katherine was called upon to help with the calculations needed to get man into space. She did the trajectory analysis for the first American human space flight of Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission in 1961. Then again in 1962 after becoming wary of the malfunctioning computers that were made to do the calculations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in his upcoming Friendship 7 mission, astronaut John Glenn personally asked for Katherine to do the calculations by hand before he would be safe enough to take the flight into space. Glenn’s flight was successful and helped to propel the United States the space competition with the Soviet Union. Katherine Johnson retired from NASA after 33 years in 1986. In 2015, at the age of 97, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. On Christmas day of 2016, a recount of Katherine Johnson’s extraordinary life and accomplishments was released in theatres, in a film called “Hidden Figures”. To this day, at the age of 98, Katherine Johnson, still lives in Hampton, Virginia (home of NASA at Langley) and continues to encourage young adults to pursue careers in science and technology.