Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson 1918 -
Space, the final frontier. Ok this isn't a Star Trek episode, but the story of Katherine Johnson will keep you on the edge of your seat all the same. Many recently became aware of Johnson's story thanks to the popular film Hidden Figures. But regardless of that box office attraction, Johnson's contributions to space exploration and NASA are too important to ignore.
Johnson was born and raised in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Johnson's legacy will likely be that of NASA mathematician responsible for calculating the trajectory for the space flight of the first American in space (Alan Shepard), the first American to orbit earth (John Glenn), and the first human mission to the moon (Apollo 11). Her NASA resume is longer and more impressive than any NASA mathematician with a history of computing space flight missions.
Johnson was not amused by simple toys or children games while growing up. She enjoyed numbers, and she counted everything. This knack for mathematics stuck with her. It's only fitting that Professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a PhD in mathematics, be Johnson's mentor at Virginia State College. After graduating she taught math at West Virginia public schools.
When NACA (currently known as NASA) started to hire women, Johnson jumped at the opportunity and moved the family to Newport News, Virginia. Johnson was hired to assume the role of human "computer." Since this predated computer technology, the women NACA hired with math degrees performed the functions of a computer by hand.
Her tenure with the other human computers was short lived because Johnson's mathematical genius was too valuable to waste away as a computer. She was quickly recruited to the all-male flight research team, a team she would remain on permanently. it is appropriate to credit Johnson with the integration of flight research teams, as she fought to be incorporated and have a voice during space flight preparation meetings.