Fifty years on from Apollo 11’s mission to the Moon and safe return to Earth, a significant birthday looms for a remarkable individual who helped make it all possible.
Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, a mathematician, was born on August 26th 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. This month, all being well, she will celebrate her 101st birthday.
This remarkable woman, whose stellar career stretched from 1953 to 1986, was immortalised in the blockbuster film ‘Hidden Figures’. The film, inspired by Margot Lee Shetterly’s New York Times bestseller of the same title, helped bring to light not only some of her contributions to space exploration, but also the quality and perseverance of a life that helped push back barriers against women, and in particular, women of colour. Her fellow mathematicians, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were also depicted in the film
Against the backdrop of the attitudes and events of the 1950s and 60s, Katherine’s achievements, and those of many of her colleagues, were nothing less than extraordinary – although she would probably say she simply strove to do her best and be her best in every area of her life. Asked about her 33-year career, “I loved every day of it,” she says. “There wasn’t one day when I didn’t wake up excited to go to work”. How many of us can say that?
Clearly, Katherine was (and is) gifted beyond the average. She demonstrated strong mathematical prowess from a young age, graduated from High School at age 14, then went on to graduate with highest honours from West Virginia State University in 1937, aged just 18. She then took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia. In 1939 she left her teaching job and enrolled in WV’s graduate math programme. After a short while, she decided to leave school to start a family with her husband James ‘Jimmy’ Goble, returning to teaching when her three daughters got older.
Katherine and James were both teaching at public schools when Jimmy’s brother-in-law Eric Epps encouraged them to move to Newport News saying, “I can get both of you jobs…there’s a government facility that’s hiring black women, and they’re looking for mathematicians”. The Gobles took a risk and moved in 1952 with Jimmy taking a job in a shipyard. Katherine’s 1952 application with NACA was for a June 1953 start. In the intervening year, she worked as a substitute math teacher, placing her in an ideal position for meeting families in the area. From her involvement in local community organisations and her church, Carver Presbyterian, she gained a strong social network and many new friends.
Then imagine her excitement when in 1953, she arrived for work at the organisation that would later become NASA. She found herself in the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Employed as a mathematician, or ‘human computer’ as they were known, she was suddenly earning three times the amount that she’d been paid as a teacher. Black ‘computers’ were routinely loaned to whichever NACA division required assistance. Pretty soon she was loaned to the Flight Research Division where her work was so good that this division became her permanent place of work.
Although NACA was at the forefront of bringing about equality in the workplace, it had a long way to go in the 1950s. Separate washrooms and segregated cafeterias being obvious examples. Katherine didn’t close her eyes to the inherent racism but was somehow able to ignore it in her work-a-day life. Some of the other black employees no doubt found this strange. Author Margot Lee Shetterly recounts that perhaps part of Katherine’s ability to put the negatives out of her mind was the effect of her father’s dictum “You are no better than anyone else and no one is better than you” – that she was able to see hardships as a part of life shared by everyone and good fortunes as unearned blessings. In addition to this, being very confident in her own abilities and assertive enough to boot, she was to prove herself time and time again, eventually positioning herself with many of the elite.
1957 saw the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, and later that year NACA became NASA. Within a few short years, the United States had rolled up its sleeves in an all-out battle to be the first to the Moon. Katherine is probably most famous for having calculated the flight trajectories for Project Mercury (as featured in the movie). However, this was only the beginning of her career with the fledgling NASA. She went on to perform vital work for Apollo 11 and also Apollo 13, where she calculated new flight paths under urgency, playing an important role in ensuring the three astronauts on the imperilled mission made it home safely. Later in her career, she worked on the Space Shuttle programme, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on plans for a Mars mission. Throughout her career, she authored or co-authored 26 scientific papers.
Katherine married James F. Goble in 1939, and together they had three daughters: Joylette, Constance, and Katherine. Sadly, their beloved husband and father died of cancer in 1956. In time Katherine found another James, and in 1959 she married Lieutenant Colonel James A. Johnson. They enjoyed a long life together, Mr. Johnson passing away peacefully at home on March 13th 2019.
During her long life, Katherine is known to have tutored countless young people while never charging a fee. In 2015, Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, by President Obama. In September 2017, she was present at the dedication of the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility (CRF) at NASA’s Langley Research Centre. When she heard that NASA’s newest building was to be named after her, she responded with a laugh: “You want my honest answer? I think they’re crazy.” More recently, In February 2019, NASA reported that it had redesignated its Independent Verification and Validation Facility as the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility.
See more about Katherine along with many other inspiring female scientists at WISE, a walk-through and interactive exhibition on at Stardome 15 – 29 August.
John Rowe, Astronomy Educator