Katherine Coleman was born on August 26, 1918, in West Virginia. Katherine’s parents were determined their four children would complete college. This was an ambitious goal for a Black family in the South. At that time, the school system was segregated. The Black school had only two rooms for seven grades. And, in order to reach the nearest Black high school, the Coleman family had to move 80 miles.
Katherine was incredibly smart and finished high school when she was just 13 years old. After high school, she enrolled at the historically Black college, West Virginia State. By 18, she graduated with a double degree in French and math. Within a few months, Katherine took a job teaching and met fellow educator Jimmie Goble.
Katherine and Jimmie married in 1939. That same year, Katherine accepted an invitation to integrate West Virginia University as one of the first Black graduate students. Katherine loved high-level math, but she did not see the value in completing her graduate degree. As an educated Black woman, teaching was the most likely profession for her, with or without a graduate degree. After one year, Katherine returned to Virginia. She and Jimmie soon had three daughters, born in 1940, 1943, and 1944.
By 1947, Katherine returned to teaching with Jimmie. During summer break, Jimmie worked as a chauffeur and Katherine as a maid because their teaching salaries were not enough to cover their expenses.
In 1951, Katherine and Jimmie’s home caught fire. Looking for a fresh start, they moved to Newport News, Virginia. Jimmie’s sister lived there. Also, there were federal government facilities nearby where Katherine might find work.
Katherine soon learned of a job opportunity that seemed too good to be true. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring women with math experience. The women were called computers because they completed all of the calculations for the male engineers on staff. At this time, the United States was involved in a cold war with Russia. Both countries were eager to create aircraft for national defense. And NACA’s computers were critical to complete this work.
Although NACA was segregated, it was required by federal law that federal government employers not discriminate on the basis of race. Therefore, NACA had two divisions of computers—one for white women and another for Black women. The hiring requirements for Black computers were different than for white computers. Black computers needed college degrees and high GPAs. White computers did not. Because of this, the engineers often preferred working with the more knowledgeable Black computers. Katherine drove to the NACA facility and requested an application. One year later, NACA offered her a job.
On Katherine’s first day, she was amazed. She was in a room full of Black women professionals, all with their own desks and computing machines. Two weeks after she started, an engineer walked into the Black computers’ office seeking help. Katherine was singled out by her boss, who said Katherine was one of the brightest computers on staff.
Katherine followed the engineer into an office full of white men. One of the team leaders asked her to review a set of calculations. Katherine immediately caught an error. She went to him and pointed out the mistake. Even though he was embarrassed, he admitted she was right. By speaking up and demonstrating her exceptional analytical skills, Katherine proved her value. Most computers were moved from project to project. Because the engineers did not want to lose her, Katherine remained a part of their team.
I stood there astounded . . . Back then a room filled with so many professional [Black] women was a rare sight . . . not one of them was a teacher or a nurse . . . nor were any of them domestics.
Katherine found ways to fit into the segregated office. She refused to obey the segregated bathroom rules and avoided eating in the segregated cafeteria. She played cards and talked about aviation magazines with her white male colleagues during breaks. She even successfully demanded that she be allowed to attend high-level briefings.
In 1956, Jimmie died from a brain tumor. Katherine was devastated. She turned to her work and her daughters for comfort and stability.
After Russia launched two satellites into orbit, NACA became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The new goal was to put Americans into space. To achieve this, Katherine sometimes worked all day, stopped home to check on her daughters, and then returned to the office at night.
In 1958, Katherine met a man named Jim Johnson. Jim respected Katherine’s work and enjoyed spending time with her daughters. They married in 1959.
Meanwhile, Katherine was helping to figure out how to send an astronaut into orbit around the Earth. One of the biggest challenges was determining where the spacecraft would land. Katherine volunteered to calculate the path. Her final report on the topic was the first of its kind from the Aerospace Mechanics Division authored by a woman.
Two years later, astronaut John Glenn was preparing to be the first American to orbit the planet. NASA used a series of mechanical computers to calculate his path. But these new computers were not always reliable. After reviewing the plan, John made a specific request. He told NASA that if “the girl” said the math was right, he was ready to fly. “The girl” John had in mind was Katherine. She spent almost two days calculating the path by hand. On February 20, 1962, John successfully orbited the planet three times and landed safely on Earth. Katherine’s math stood up to the test. The Black press eventually learned of her role in the project. One Black newspaper celebrated her as a “mother, wife, and career woman!”
When President Kennedy challenged NASA to land on the moon, Katherine was a key figure on the team. She helped figure out how to launch a spacecraft into the moon’s orbit and how to connect an orbiting craft with the one that landed on the moon. In July 1969, the United States landed on the moon. But Katherine was neither at home nor in the office. She finished her calculations for the flight much earlier and was attending a college reunion. As the group crowded around a hotel TV to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, few of them knew how critically important Katherine was to that moment.
When Katherine returned from the reunion, the moon landing was far from her mind. She was already working on a different project—calculations for sending a person to Mars!
Over the next 17 years, Katherine continued to work tirelessly at NASA. She ensured all three of her daughters graduated from college. She tutored students and advocated for better access to STEM education for Black girls.
Katherine retired from NASA in 1986. In 2015, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, her life was profiled in the movie Hidden Figures. And in 2017, NASA named its new computing facility after her. Katherine died in 2020 at the age of 101.
- aeronautics: The science of flying or traveling in the air.
- aviation: Flying or operating an aircraft or airplane.
- Cold War: A state of hostility between two nations that does not include open warfare. The most famous cold war was between the United States and the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1990.
- lunar: Relating to the moon.
- National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA): An agency of the federal government that studied flying and aircraft from 1915–1958.
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA): An agency of the federal government founded in 1958 that explores and studies space and other aeronautic topics.
- Neil Armstrong: The first American astronaut to walk on the surface of the moon.
- orbit: To move around a planet, star, or moon.
- Presidential Medal of Freedom: The highest honor a non-military person in America can receive given by the President of the United States.
- STEM: An acronym that stands for “science, technology, engineering, and math.”
- How did Katherine’s early life shape her career path?
- Why did Katherine’s parents emphasize education? What does this tell you about the relationship between education and Black citizenship in America?
- Why didn’t Katherine complete her graduate degree? What does this tell you about the intersections of education, employment, gender, and race?
- Why was Katherine so eager to work for NACA/NASA? What did the job mean to her?
- Describe the role of the NACA/NASA computers. Why do you think those jobs were reserved for women?
- How did Katherine handle the racism and sexism she experienced at work?
- Why do you think Katherine’s contributions to NASA were overlooked for so long? What does this tell you about history and public memory?