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West Virginia's Historic People

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Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, a NASA mathematician, was born August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs. The local segregated schools offered schooling only to eighth grade for black children. Johnson left home to attend an African-American high school associated with West Virginia State College (now University), and completed her secondary school course work at the age of 13. She began college at West Virginia State the next year and graduated in 1937, at age 18, with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and French.

Despite the obstacle of being an African-American woman in a male-dominated field, she persevered and thrived. She began working with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the agency that preceded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in 1953, as a “computer” doing complex analysis and calculations. Her work was crucial in calculating the 1961 trajectory for Alan Shepard’s historic suborbital flight. In 1962, for John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth, she verified calculations made for the first time by electronic computers. In 1969, she calculated the Apollo 11 trajectory to the Moon. Johnson’s successful calculations were central to many prominent American space flights during her tenure at NASA.

In September 2016, Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race was released. The book follows the interwoven accounts of Johnson and three other African-American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes over three decades.

Information cited from: Doyle, Kelly "Katherine Johnson." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 03 July 2019.

Helpful Links

e-West Virginia Katherine Johnson

NASA Katherine Johnson Biography

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