Today's doodle is in honor of an incredibly intelligent woman, defying race and gender boundaries time and time again. Creola Katherine Coleman was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, August 26, 1918. She had intense curiosity and brilliance with numbers, vaulting her ahead several grades in school. By 13, she was attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. At 18, she enrolled in the college itself, where she made quick work of the school’s math curriculum and found a mentor in math professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a PhD in mathematics. In 1937, Katherine graduated with the highest honors in and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia.
West Virginia quietly integrated its graduate schools in 1939 and West Virginia State’s president, Dr. John W. Davis, selected Katherine and two men to be the first black students offered spots at the state’s flagship school, West Virginia University. She left her teaching job and enrolled in the graduate math program. However, at the end of the first session, she decided to leave the program to start a family with her first husband, James Goble. She returned to teaching once her three daughters got older.
In 1952 she was told about open positions at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory, headed by fellow West Virginian Dorothy Vaughan. In order to pursue the opportunity, Katherine and her husband decided to move the family to Newport News, Virginia and Katherine began work at Langley in the summer of 1953. Just two weeks into the job, Dorothy Vaughan assigned her to a project in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division, where Katherine’s temporary position soon became permanent. She spent the next four years analyzing data from flight tests and worked on the investigation of a plane crash caused by wake turbulence.
In December 1956 she was finishing up the investigation but her husband died of cancer. Then the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik changed history—and Johnson’s life again, but this time for the better. In 1957, she provided some of the math for the 1958 document Notes on Space Technology, a series of lectures given by engineers in the Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD). Engineers from those groups formed the core of the Space Task Group, the NACA’s first official foray into space travel. Johnson, who had worked with many of them since coming to Langley, “came along with the program” as the NACA became NASA later that year.
Kathrine did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight. In 1960, she and engineer Ted Skopinski coauthored Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position, a report which layed out the equations describing an orbital spaceflight in which the landing position of the spacecraft was specified. This was the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had received credit as an author of a research report.
In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Johnson was called upon to do the work that she would become most known for. The complexity of the orbital flight had required the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, Cape Canaveral in Florida, and Bermuda. The computers were programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission from liftoff to splashdown, but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines as they were prone to hiccups and blackouts. As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”. Katherine was asked to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success, and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space.
When asked to name her greatest contribution to space exploration, Johnson would talk about the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Module with the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module. She also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS, later renamed Landsat) and authored or coauthored 26 research reports. She retired in 1986, after 33 years at Langley. “I loved going to work every single day,” she said.
In 2015, at age 97, Johnson added another extraordinary achievement to her long list: She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
Katherine Johnson passed away at the age of 101 on Feb. 24, 2020. She was a hero and her legacy will continue.