Katherine Johnson: National Visionary

Katherine Johnson: National Visionary

National Visionary Leadership Project

Image of Katherine Johnson at NASA Langley Research Center in 1971.

NASA mathematician and physicist whose work successfully guided astronauts throughout the historic early era of manned space flight including the first mission to the moon


Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson is a pioneer of the American space movement. She is a research mathematician and physicist who calculated trajectories and orbits for historic missions including the first flight to put a man on the moon. She also helped develop space navigation systems to guide the astronauts. But her career might never have gotten off the ground if not for perseverance. Both her father’s determined effort to send his children to school and her own resolution to pursue her dreams overcame race and gender discrimination and led to an extraordinary life of personal fulfillment and professional achievements.

Katherine Coleman was born on August 26, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Her mother, Joylette, was a former teacher and her father, Joshua, a farmer who worked extra jobs as a janitor. At a very young age, Katherine, who was the youngest of four, showed signs of being a math prodigy. She says she counted everything. “I counted the steps. I counted the plates that I washed.” And, “I knew how many steps there were from our house to church.” Katherine believes she inherited her gift for numbers from her father. “He originally worked with lumber. He could look at a tree and tell how many boards he could get out of it.” One of Katherine’s favorite stories explains how her father could figure out arithmetic problems that confounded some of her teachers…

…On the bus ride to this first assignment (in Marion, VA), Katherine says she had her first experience with racism. She says when they crossed from West Virginia into Virginia, the bus stopped and all of the Black people had to move to the back, which Katherine did. Later, they had to change buses. All of the white passengers were allowed on the bus, but the Blacks were put into taxis. Katherine says the driver said “All you colored folk, come over here.” But she would not move until he asked her politely. Katherine also said her mother warned her, “Remember, you’re going to Virginia.” And that she said, “Well, tell them I’m coming.” Katherine says the racism was not as blatant in West Virginia as it was in Virginia.

Katherine Johnson in 1985 at NASA Langley Research Center.

In 1939, Katherine married James Francis Goble and started a family. The Gobles had three daughters, Constance, Joylette and Kathy. Though Katherine had resigned her teaching position, in 1940 she was invited to return to her alma mater for a graduate program in math. She believes that college administrators were quietly trying to avoid a segregation-related lawsuit. As a result, she became one of the first blacks to enroll in the graduate program. But she was unable to earn her advanced degree. Her husband fell ill in what would become a protracted fight with cancer. To help support her family, Katherine quit school and returned to teaching.

During a trip to visit relatives in Newport News, Virginia in 1952, her sister and brother-in-law told Katherine they believed that opportunities were opening up for Black women in mathematics at a nearby aeronautics research facility. The next week, the Gobles relocated so Katherine could pursue her dream.

It took a year of effort, but in June 1953, Katherine was contracted as a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the agency that preceded NASA. At first she worked in a pool of women performing math calculations…

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