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Faces of HPC: Katherine Johnson

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson is a mathematician who worked at NASA for 30 years, contributing to the early application of digital electronic computers and space missions, such as calculating the trajectory for Project Mercury and Apollo 11.


Katherine Johnson began her career by teaching Mathematics, French and Music and moved to working for NACA (later became NASA) as a "human computer", initially on topics such as gust alleviation for aircraft. Later in her career she worked on calculating trajectories of missions and constructing emergency plans for astronauts in case of electronic failures. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by president Barack Obama for being a pioneering example of African American women in STEM.


Katherine Coleman was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Her father Joshua worked in many jobs and her mother Joylette was a former teacher. Katherine has 3 siblings. She was a keen mathematician from an early age, so much so that her mother moved her and her siblings to Kanawha County, West Virginia, during every school year in order for the children to study, as the Greebrier County did not offer schooling for black children after a certain age.

Katherine graduated from high school at the early age of 13 and at 15 she started attending West Virginia State College. She took every mathematics course that was offered at that time. Many professors, seeing her interest and skills, mentored Katherine, such as Angie Turner King and William Schiefflin Claytor, the latter also added a new maths course for Katherine to attend. She graduated at the age of 18, having degrees in both maths and French. After college, she taught maths, French and music at a small grade school. In 1938, she was the first African American woman to end the racial separation at the West Virginia University in Morgantown.

In 1953 Katherine applied for a position at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, later becoming NASA). In the first five years working at NACA, Katherine was employed as a human ‘computer’ perfoming analysis on topics such as gust alleviation for aircraft. From 1958 and until her retirement in 1983, she worked as an aerospace technologist and contributed to many NACA missions initially performing calculations by hand but later using digital computers, by calculating trajectories, planning backup procedures, etc. The missions she contributed to are many, some of them being Alan Shepard's space flight, Mercury mission, John Glenn's orbit around Earth, Apollo 11, Apollo 13, Space Shuttle program, Earth Resources Satellite and plans for mission to Mars.

Katherine married Francis Goble in 1939 and they had 3 daughters. Her husband died of inoperable brain tumour in 1956. She later married Lt. Colonel James Johnson and now lives with Johnson in Hampton, Virginia. She has her place among the honoured African American people in STEM and was one of the 17 Americans awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by president Barack Obama.


Last updated: 05 Apr 2016 at 12:11