"I counted everything: the steps, the dishes, the stars in the sky," says Katherine Johnson of her childhood. Math has given her joy for as long as she can remember, and it seems that becoming a professional mathematician was her destiny. As an African-American woman from rural West Virginia, however, the path that brought her to the profession seems as extraordinary as the equations she used to help send John Glenn into orbit around the earth and land Neil Armstrong on the moon.
Born in 1910 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia to Joshua Coleman, a blacksmith and farmer, and Joylette Coleman, a schoolteacher, Katherine Johnson grew up in a household that valued the importance of education. The Colemans set high expectation for their four children and did all they could to encourage their youngest daughter's obvious talent for math. As there was no Negro secondary school in White Sulphur Springs, the Colemans sent their children to attend the laboratory school on the campus of West Virginia State Institute, a black college 100 miles away, just outside of the state capital Charleston. The precocious youngster earned excellent grades in junior high and high school, and joined West Virginia State's freshman class at age 15. She graduated from West Virginia State in 1937 at age eighteen, with a degree in Math Education and French.
Katherine Johnsons' personal story intersected with the grand sweep of the 20th century for the first time in 1939, when she was one of three black students selected to integrate the graduate program at then all-white West Virginia University. She left graduate school after a year to get married and start a family, and taught mathematics, French and music in public schools in Virginia until 1952. When a family member let her know about a job opening for black women with math degrees at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics Langley Aeronautical Laboratory (now the Langley Research Center), she and her husband and three daughters decided to relocated to Newport News, VA. She began working at Langley in the summer of 1953, initially in the West Area Computing Group headed by Dorothy Vaughan. After just two weeks, she transferred to the facility's Flight Research Division.
For years Katherine Johnson worked closely with the engineers in the Flight Research Division on issues related to airplane gust alleviation and wake turbulence. Then history intervened a second time: the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik kicked off the space race between the US and the USSR, and hastened the transformation of the NACA into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration-- NASA, America's space agency. The engineers of the Flight Research Division formed the nucleus of the Space Task Group, the group within NASA charged with beating the Russians in space, and as a mathematician who had earned for a curious mind and careful, accurate work, Katherine Johnson formed part of the inner circle of the early days of the American Space Program. She worked on trajectories for the Alan Shepard's Mercury flight- America's first manned spaceflight--and earned a measure of fame as "the girl" (as female mathematicians were then called) who double-checked the output for John Glenn's pioneering orbital spaceflight MA-6. Along with engineer Ted Skopinski she coauthored the 1960 report Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position, the equations describing the trajectories for placing the manned Mercury capsule into low-Earth orbit and returning it safely to the planet's surface, making her the Flight Research Division's first credited female author.
The sky was not the limit for Katherine Johnson: working closely with engineers Al Hamer and John Young, she provided trajectory work for the Lunar Orbiter Program, which mapped the moon's surface in advance of the 1969 moon landing. Her calculations helped to synchronize Project Apollo's Lunar Module with the moon-orbiting Apollo Command Service Module, and she and Al Hamer collaborated on backup calculations that played a role in the safe return of astronauts in the Apollo 13 mission (see An approach guidance method using a single onboard optical measurement). She also worked on the Space Shuttle.
Katherine Johnson retired from NASA-Langley in 1986. She has received many honors, including several NASA Achievement Awards and honorary degrees. In 2015, President Barak Obama selected her to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that the United States bestows on a civilian.