Katherine Johnson, Computer and Pioneer

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Welding WP668 caboose stair rail
photo: 1979 U.S. Department of Energy A benefit of creating the

Famous Women in Computer Science
list is learning new stories of amazing women
who have been recommended by my generous readers. Notable even in this
remarkably accomplished group is Katherine Johnson. Ms Johnson was brought to
my attention by
Kristin Yvonne Rozier
, a Research Computer Scientist at

NASA Ames Research Center
here in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I first
met Kristin, she worked at

NASA Langley Research Center
, where Katherine Johnson had also worked.

About Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson made significant contributions to America’s aeronautics and space advances and she was a pioneer in advancing our society. Her accomplishments contributed to the success of our nation’s early space program and in the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA. Her courage and perseverance helped to lead the way for both women and African-Americans in technical fields.

Education and Early Work

Katherine Coleman was born in 1918 in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. Her mother, Joylette, had been a teacher and her father, Joshua, was a farmer who also worked as a janitor. Since local schools only offered classes to African-Americans through the eighth grade, her father drove the children to a school 125 miles away. Katherine graduated from high school at 14, from college at 18. She taught in elementary and high schools in West Virginia and Virginia for 17 years. Then, Katherine Johnson went to work as a “computer” for the Langley Research Center, part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). NACA later became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Katherine Johnson at NASA

According to her oral history archived by the National Visionary Leadership Project:

“…in June 1953, Katherine was contracted as a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center… At first she worked in a pool of women performing math calculations. Katherine has referred to the women in the pool as virtual `computers who wore skirts.’ Their main job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other precise mathematical tasks. Then one day, Katherine (and a colleague) were temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team. Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male bosses and colleagues to the extent that,’they forgot to return me to the pool.’ While the racial and gender barriers were always there, Katherine says she ignored them. Katherine was assertive, asking to be included in editorial meetings (where no women had gone before.) She simply told people she had done the work and that she belonged.”

At NASA, Katherine Johnson started work in the all-male Flight Mechanics Branch and later moved to the Spacecraft Controls Branch. She calculated the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, in 1959 and the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission. She plotted backup navigational charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. In 1962, when NASA used computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth, officials called on her to verify the computer’s numbers. Ms. Johnson later worked directly with real computers. Her ability and reputation for accuracy helped to establish confidence in the new technology. She calculated the trajectory for the
1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. Later in her career, she worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on plans for a mission to Mars.

Katherine Johnson’s Legacy

In total, Katherine Johnson co-authored 26 scientific papers, of which only one can now be found. The practice in 1960 would have been not to list the female Computers as formal co-authors, so that she was listed as an author is significant.

Katherine Johnson’s social impact as a pioneer in space science and computing may be seen both from the honors she has received and the number of times her story is presented as a role model. Since 1979 (before she retired from NASA), Katherine Johnson’s biography has had an honored place in lists of African-Americans in Science and Technology. In an era when race and gender held back many, Katherine Johnson’s courage, perseverance, and talent helped her to succeed. The continuing need for historical success models for both women and African-Americans makes Katherine Johnson particularly important.

Katherine Johnson and Computer Science

Much of Katherine Johnson’s life predates the academic discipline now called Computer Science; however, she has two strong ties to the field. First, as a “Computer” scientist she is one of few people to carry this historical title which refers to when humans did what computers do now. It’s the same work, just less automated back then. Second, she was one of the earliest people in the area now called verification of avionics software systems. In 1962, people were still used to check the results found by NASA’s mechanical computers: to verify that the trajectories were correctly computed. When Katherine Johnson worked with the flight research team, she probably influenced the ways in which early computers were initially integrated into avionics systems by determining how they could be most useful, and that they were reliable enough. Like Katherine Johnson, many of those who work today in avionics software verification have math degrees because of the nature of the tools used. NASA now calls workers in that area Research Computer Scientists. Work at NASA is interdisciplinary, so it is hard to classify people into traditional categories; however, avionics hardware and software verification are unquestionably part of what we now call Computer Science.

Curriculum Vitae

Katherine Johnson

Experience Summary

    • 1953-1986 NASA Langley Research Center, Virginia
    • 1953-1958 Computer (mathematician), Langley Research Center with
      the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)
    • 1958-1986, Aerospace Technologist, NASA
    • 1952-1953 Substitute math teacher for Newport News, VA, public schools
    • 1936-1952 Teacher in rural Virginia and West Virginia high schools and elementary
      schools

Education

    • 1940 West Virginia University graduate program in Math
    • 1937 West Virginia State University (West Virginia State College),
      BS in Mathematics and French, summa cum laude
    • 1932 West Virginia State High School

Awards

    • 2006, Honorary Doctor of Science by the Capitol College of Laurel Maryland
    • 1999, West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year
    • 1988, Honorary Doctor of Laws, from SUNY Farmingdale
    • 1986, NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award
    • 1985, NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award
    • 1984, NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award
    • 1980, NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award
    • 1971, NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award
    • 1967, Apollo Group Achievement Award – this award included one of only 300 flags flown to the moon on-board the Apollo 11
    • 1967, NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team award – for pioneering work in the field of navigation problems supporting the five spacecraft that orbited and mapped the moon in preparation for the Apollo missions

Publications

    • NASA TND-233, “The Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position” 1960. Authors: T.H. Skopinski, Katherine G. Johnson

      This is a formal peer-reviewed NASA report. The practice at the time would have been not to list the female Computers as formal co-authors, so the fact that she was included is significant.

Published Biographies and References

Personal

    • On August 26, 1918, Katherine Coleman was born in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. In 1939, she married James Francis Goble and started a family. The Gobles had three daughters: Constance, Joylette, and Katherine. In 1956, James Goble died of an inoperable brain tumor. In 1959, Katherine Johnson married Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson. She sang in the choir of Carver Presbyterian Church for fifty years.
    • Katherine Johnson and her husband live in Hampton, Virginia, and enjoy spending time with six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Ms. Johnson still plays piano, bridge, and solves puzzles.

Grateful thanks to
Lesa B. Roe
, Gail S. Langevin, and Jim Hodges of NASA Langley, and to Kristin Yvonne Rozier of NASA Ames for their help in collecting and developing this information. All honor to Katherine Johnson for leading the way.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Katherine Johnson, Computer and Pioneer

  1. Dear Dr. Johnson,
    You will not remember me, but I graduated from Carver with Joylette, and we performed together (piano/vocal). I met you at your house in Newsome Park. I saw Joylette and her sisters at the annual Carver affair last month for the first time in 51 years. We shared a happy time there. I came upon your story by accident today on two websites, and am amazed at your accomplishments with regard to science–especially about space. I have been so impressed over the years, that if I had my "druthers" I would have been an astronaut, or a physicist, or a doctor–or just in some science field. If I had known of your interests back then, you would have been inundated with my questions. In my familoy’s URL: http://all.dyerworks.com (developed by my son, Miraculous Dyer), there is a link named "Shirleyvision" which includes a link to world-wide space news. My favorite is NASA’s APOD which I try to view every day. My late husband (2005) was also fascinated with new discoveries in space, and I wish he was alive to learn of your story. Thank you for all that you have done for us. I feel so proud of you. The most that I accomplished was in working with my daughter who has Autism–some of which I wrote about in the above URL in a link named "Developmentally Speaking." I learned, I guess through motherwit how to communicate with her and she is doing quite well at 36 years old, as a person whom doctors said would never talk or interact. Joylette met Shielda. My career culminated in office management as an Administrative Assistant at Howard University except for five years at UDC. After I earned my bachelor’s degree at Howard, severe family illness, especially of my husband, Lewis, precluded any further studies. I have only the two children mentioned above, but they are a JOY, and BLESSING.
    I am so happy to have been able to communicate with you today. This has really made my Christmas!
    The best to you and your family,
    Shirley Poindexter Dyer

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