Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (born August 26, 1918) is a physicist and mathematician who made fundamental contributions to the United States’ aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA. Known for accuracy in computerized celestial navigation, her technical work at NASA spanned decades during which she calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for many flights from Project Mercury including the early NASA missions of John Glenn and Alan Shepard, the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon, through the Space Shuttle program and even early plans for the Mission to Mars.
Johnson was born in 1918, to Joshua and Joylette Coleman in White Sulphur Springs, Greenbrier County, West Virginia. She was the youngest of four children. Her father worked as a lumberman, a farmer, a handyman, and at the Greenbrier Hotel. Her mother was a former teacher. Early on, Johnson showed a talent for math. Her parents emphasized the importance of education. Because Greenbrier County did not offer schooling for African-American students past the eighth grade, the Coleman children attended high school in Institute, Kanawha County, West Virginia. The family split their time between Institute during the school year and White Sulphur Springs in the summer.
Johnson graduated from high school at age 14. At age 15, she began attending West Virginia State College. As a student, Johnson took every math course the college offered. Multiple professors took Johnson under their wings, including chemist and mathematician Angie Turner King, who had also mentored Johnson throughout high school, and W.W. Schiefflin Claytor, the third African American to receive a PhD in math. Claytor added new math courses just for Johnson. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937, with degrees in math and French, at age 18. After graduation, Johnson moved to Marion, Virginia, to teach math, French, and music at a small grade school.
In 1938, Johnson became the first African American woman to desegregate the graduate school at West Virginia University in Morgantown, Monongalia County, West Virginia. She was one of three African American students, and the only female, selected to integrate the graduate school after the United States Supreme Court ruling Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada.