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Johnson, Katherine Coleman Goble

Johnson, Katherine Coleman Goble

1918—

Mathematician, aerospace scientist

Katherine Johnson was a pioneer scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She determined the trajectories for America's first manned space flights in 1961 and 1962. In 1969 her work was instrumental in landing men on the moon. The following year she helped bring the ill-fated Apollo 13 safely back to Earth. An early computer expert, Johnson was considered to be one of the most brilliant mathematicians at NASA.

Studied Mathematics

Katherine Coleman was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She told Wini Warren in 1996 that "education was the primary focus in our family." Since White Sulphur Springs did not have a high school, each September Katherine, her sister, and two brothers moved to Institute, West Virginia, the home ofWest Virginia State College. Institute was an all-black town with many well-educated residents and the Colemans attended the college's laboratory high school. Their mother kept house for them in Institute while their father stayed at his job at the Greenbriar Hotel in White Sulphur Springs.

As at other historically black schools, mentoring students was a major focus at West Virginia State. Johnson's high-school and college teacher Angie Turner King a major influence. Johnson told Warren: "Our teachers made such a difference—all my teachers and professors were very supportive and nurturing…James Carmichael Evans, was one of my math teachers in college—his wife had taught me math in the eighth grade—and because they didn't have children at the time, I became a kind of child to them…To please him I always had to do my very very best…. At that time, I was very interested in French and English studies…but Professor Evans said, ‘I know how good you are in French, but you will also major in mathematics.’" So Johnson majored in both mathematics and French, graduating summa cum laude in 1937. Over the next three years she did graduate work in mathematics and physics at West Virginia State.

Johnson married James Goble, and they had three daughters. She taught math, and occasionally French, at various high schools in Marion and Morgantown, West Virginia. After moving to Newport News, Virginia, she worked as a substitute teacher and as program director for the local United Service Organizations (USO). After her first husband's death she married James A. Johnson, an artillery captain.

Became a Human Computer

Johnson began her career as a "human computer" at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), NASA's predecessor, at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Before the age of electronic computers, NACA employed hundreds of women mathematicians as human computers. They used slide rules and mechanical calculators to perform complex calculations on wind-tunnel experiments. Whereas men with similar qualifications were classified as professionals, the women were sub-professionals. However most of the women enjoyed their work and were much better paid than female employees elsewhere. Black mathematicians, however, were segregated in their own office and loaned out to various divisions as needed.

When the space race heated up with the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, Johnson was perfectly positioned to embark on a successful career in a profession dominated by white men. Soon after joining the NACA she was loaned out to the Flight Research Division and, as she told Warren, "never sent back." It was the department that would become the nucleus of the space program. Johnson told Warren: "We were pioneers of the space era. We worked in secret for about three years, often without knowing exactly what the total thrust of our work was…You had to read Aviation Week to find out what you'd done…Everything was so new—the whole idea of going into space was new and daring. There were no textbooks, so we had to write them…We created the equations needed to track a vehicle in space."

Regardless of their position women were not allowed to attend briefings. Johnson told Warren: "I'd ask what had gone on in the briefing—I'd listen and listen, and ask questions. Then, of course, I'd ask why I couldn't go myself, and eventually they just got tired of answering all my questions and just let me in."

In general women's names were omitted from their research at NASA. Johnson told Warren: "We needed to be assertive as women in those days—assertive and aggressive…. I was working with Ted Skopinski and he wanted to leave and go to Houston…but Pearson, our supervisor—who was not a fan of women—kept pushing him to finish the report we were working on. Finally, Ted told him, ‘Katherine should finish the report, she's done most of the work, anyway.’ So Ted left Pearson with no choice; I finished the report and my name went on it, and that was the first time that a woman in our division had her name on something." Her groundbreaking report provided the theoretical basis for launching, tracking, and returning space vehicles. During her 33-year career at NASA Johnson co-authored 21 technical papers.

Helped Land Men on the Moon

Johnson tracked the trajectories of the first manned space flight, the Mercury flight of astronaut Alan Shepard in 1961. She helped design the tracking system that enabled NASA to predict within two miles the location of Glenn's rocket cone after his three orbits around the Earth in 1962. The headline in the New York Amsterdam News read "Her Paper Helped to Track Astronaut: Math Expert Who Aided Spaceman Is ‘Thrilled.’"

By the mid-1960s Johnson and a colleague were worrying about something going wrong, such as a computer failure. They began to formulate possible problems and backup solutions and developed simple navigational methods for the astronauts to use in case they lost contact with ground control. She told Warren that, although they were in Virginia, "the computers we were using were out in California, and there was the time differential…. We worked mostly at night, so we could communicate with the computers. Most of the time we worked sixteen hour days…. One morning I woke up in my car by the side of the road—I had fallen asleep behind the wheel, and I told myself I had to cut back."

At a Glance …

Born Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, WV; married James Goble (died); married James A. Johnson; children: three daughters (first marriage). Education: West Virginia State College, BS, mathematics and French, 1937. Religion: Presbyterian.

Career:

Marion, WV, Morgantown, WV, Newport News, VA, math and French teacher, 1937-53; NACA, NASA, Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA, Flight Research Division, aerospace technologist, 1953-86.

Memberships:

Girl Scouts USA, YWCA.

Awards:

NASA, Group Achievement Awards, Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations Team, 1967, Apollo Team, 1970, Special Achievement Awards, 1970, 1980, 1985; State University of New York, Farmingdale, honorary doctorate, 1998; West Virginia State College, Outstanding Alumnus of the Year, 1999.

Johnson continued to work on tracking manned and unmanned flights. She analyzed the data collected at tracking stations around the world during the Apollo moon missions. Her calculations helped land Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969. Johnson calculated Apollo 11's flight path into orbit around the moon, the path of the landing module to the moon's surface, the module's flight back to Apollo 11, and the spaceship's return to Earth. Johnson made the star map that the astronauts used to chart their minute-by-minute journey. She experienced a brief moment of fame when her work was instrumental bringing Apollo 13 safely back to Earth following a fuel-tank explosion and computer-system failure. Johnson told Warren that much of their work at the time was based on hunches and that one of the astronauts said: "I'll take Kate's hunches anytime."

Johnson became an expert on electronic IBM computers as they replaced human computers during the 1960s and 1970s. In the mid-1970s she began working on new more practical ways to track near-earth orbits and interplanetary space vehicles.

Johnson and her husband continued to reside in Hampton, Virginia, following her retirement from NASA in 1986. In 2005 Texas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson talked about Katherine Johnson on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives when she introduced a resolution to recognize the contributions of women and minorities in science and technology. Katherine Johnson is one of only 24 scientists included in the permanent collection of the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Selected writings

(With T. H. Skopinski) Determination of Azimuth Angle of Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position, NASA Technical Note D-233, 1959.

(With Harold A. Hamer) Simplified Interplanetary Guidance Procedures Using Onboard Optical Measurements, NASA Technical Note D-6752, May 1972.

(With Harold A. Hamer) Effects of Errors on Decoupled Control Systems, NASA Technical Paper 1184, July 1978.

(With others) "Prediction of Jump Phenomena in Rotationally-Coupled Maneuvers of Aircraft, Including Nonlinear Aerodynamic Effects," Journal of Guidance and Control, Vol. 1, 1978, pp. 26-31.

(With others) "A Multiple Objective Optimization Approach to Aircraft Control Systems Design," Automatica, Vol. 15, September 1979, pp. 595-600.

Sources

Books

"Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson," Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present, Gale Group, 2001.

Warren, Wini, Black Women Scientists in the United States, Indiana University Press, 1999, pp. 140-147.

Periodicals

Footsteps, May/June 2004, pp. 24-27.

Goddard View, February 2006, p. 7.

Jet, May 23, 2005, pp. 4-5.

Miami Times, March 7, 2000, p. 8D.

New York Amsterdam News, February 24, 1962, pp. 1, 20.

Pittsburgh Courier, March 10, 1962, p. 3.

On-line

"Katherine G. Johnson," The Faces of Science: African Americans in the Sciences, https://webfiles.uci.edu/mcbrown/display/katherine_johnson.html (February 26, 2007).

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