Written by Margalit Fox
They asked Katherine Johnson for the moon, and she gave it to them.
Wielding little more than a pencil, a slide rule and one of the finest mathematical minds in the country, Johnson — who died at 101 on Monday at a retirement home in Newport News, Virginia — calculated the precise trajectories that would let Apollo 11 land on the moon in 1969 and, after Neil Armstrong’s history-making moonwalk, let it return to Earth.
A single error, she well knew, could have dire consequences for craft and crew. Her impeccable calculations had already helped plot the successful flight of Alan Shepard, who became the first American in space when his Mercury spacecraft went aloft in 1961.
The next year, she likewise helped make it possible for John Glenn, in the Mercury vessel Friendship 7, to become the first American to orbit the Earth.
Yet throughout Johnson’s 33 years in NASA’s Flight Research Division — the office from which the U.S. space program sprang — and for decades afterward, almost no one knew her name.
Johnson was one of several hundred rigorously educated, supremely capable yet largely unheralded women who, well before the modern feminist movement, worked as NASA mathematicians.
But it was not only her gender that kept her long marginalized and long unsung: Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, a West Virginia native who began her scientific career in the age of Jim Crow, was also African American.
In old age, Johnson became the most celebrated of the small cadre of black women — perhaps three dozen — who at midcentury served as mathematicians for the space agency and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Their story was told in the 2016 Hollywood film “Hidden Figures,” based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book of the same title.
In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, proclaiming, “Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.”
In 2017, NASA dedicated a building in her honor, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
The work of Johnson and her colleagues — myriad calculations done mainly by hand, using slide rules, graph paper and clattering desktop calculating machines — won them a level of acceptance that for the most part transcended race.
“NASA was a very professional organization,” Johnson told The Observer of Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 2010. “They didn’t have time to be concerned about what color I was.”
Creola Katherine Coleman was born Aug. 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the youngest of four children of Joshua and Joylette (Lowe) Coleman. Her mother was a schoolteacher, her father a farmer.
But for black children, the town’s segregated educational system went as far as only sixth grade. Thus, every fall, Joshua Coleman moved his family 125 miles away to Institute, West Virginia. In Institute, Katherine’s older siblings, and then Katherine, attended the high school associated with the West Virginia Collegiate Institute, a historically black institution that is now West Virginia State University.
Katherine entered high school at 10 and graduated at 14. The next year she entered West Virginia State. After graduating summa cum laude in 1937 with a double major in mathematics and French, she found, unsurprisingly, that research opportunities for black female teenage mathematicians were negligible. She took a job as a schoolteacher in Marion, Virginia.
Now married to James Francis Goble, a chemistry teacher, she entered West Virginia University in the summer of 1940, studying advanced mathematics. But after that summer session, on discovering she was pregnant with her first child, she withdrew from the university. She returned with her husband to Marion and taught for more than a decade.
Then, in 1952, Katherine Goble heard that Langley was hiring black women as mathematicians. The oldest of NASA’s field centers, Langley had been established by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1917. Two weeks into her new job, she was borrowed by the Flight Research Division, which occupied an immense hangar on the Langley grounds. She remained in the division for the rest of her career.
Her work helped sustain her through the death of her first husband from brain cancer in 1956, leaving her, at 38, a widow with three adolescent daughters. She married James A. Johnson, a U.S. Army captain, in 1959. She is survived by two daughters, Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore; six grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Connie Garcia, died in 2010; her second husband, James Johnson, died in 2019.
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