Katherine was born in on 26 August 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia where her father Joshua was a farmer, and her mother Joylette was a teacher. From an early age, Katherine knew exactly what she wanted to do, and mathematics came easily to her.
I counted everything. I counted the steps in the road, the steps up to the church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed… anything that could be counted.
She longed to go to school. She began to follow her brother to school, one day meeting with his teacher. The teacher was impressed that Katherine could already read and allowed her to attend a summer school. When she officially started school just before her sixth birthday, she was put straight into the second grade, and later, when she was about to enter the fifth grade, she was again moved up a year.
Despite having missed grades one and five, she was ready for high school by the time she was ten. Unfortunately, school for African-Americans in White Sulphur Springs finished at the eighth grade but her father considered education and the equal opportunity of attaining it of paramount importance. He had always taught his children “you are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better”.
And with that his driving force, he moved his family 125 miles to West Virginia, where education continued to high school level. Katherine went on to study at West Virginia State High School. She graduated early, at the age of 14, and transferred to the associated West Virginia State College earning a full scholarship which included tuition, as well as room and board. Katherine was one of the first African American’s to enrol in a Mathematics course.
A young professor, W.W. Schiefflin Claytor, (the third African-American to earn a Ph.D. degree in mathematics), quickly recognised Katherine’s abilities in mathematics. Claytor proceeded to guide Katherine in her choice of courses. He ensured that she took all of the mathematics classes that she would need to enable her to follow her passion and devised a special course covering analytical geometry of space, specifically with Katherine in mind. This knowledge was to prove especially useful when she later joined the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (later to became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). By the age of 18, Katherine had obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in French and Mathematics from West Virginia State University.
After college, Katherine began teaching in rural Virginia and West Virginia schools, often the only option for women in her community. She accepted her first job in an elementary school after being told that if she could teach French and Maths and play the piano, then the job was hers. It was on a bus ride to this school in Marion, Virginia that she encountered one of her most remembered experiences of racism.
Katherine felt that the racism in West Virginia was less blatant than that in Virginia. As such, she was surprised when on crossing into Virginia from West Virginia the bus came to a halt and all black people were told to move to the back. When the driver said all the coloured people were to be put into taxis, Katherine refused until he asked politely. A stand indicative of lifetime refusal to be thought of as less than equal.
Katherine left teaching in 1939 to marry James Francis Noble and start a family. They went on to have three daughters, Constance, Joylette and Katherine. However in 1940, West Virginia State University invited her to join a graduate maths programme, making her one of the first black people to enrol in the graduate programme. Katherine did feel that the college administration were trying to avoid a segregation-related lawsuit, but was still very eager to join the programme. Unfortunately, James became ill and she was forced to leave her studies to support her family. She returned to teaching.
In 1952, Katherine discovered that Langley Research Centre with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) were looking to recruit mathematically-able African-American women. A year later, she began work there as research mathematician, initially in a pool of women performing maths calculations. Katherine reported that the pools of women were like “computers who wore skirts”, robotically processing data.
Luck is a combination of preparation and opportunity. If you’re prepared and the opportunity comes up, it’s your good fortune to have been in the right place at the right time and to have been prepared for the job.
Within two weeks she, along with another colleague, were invited to join the all-male flight research engineers on a temporary basis to assist in calculations. This team would later be involved in the new Space Task Force when the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry so impressed her male bosses that “they forgot to return me to the pool.”
Katherine recognised the pervading presence of the racial and gender barriers but chose to ignore them. She asked to be included in editorial meetings, even though she was aware that women were never permitted to do so. She publicly insisted that she had done the work and had earned her place in those meetings. On one occasion, when a question arose that the men couldn’t answer, a male colleague had no choice but to refer to Katherine. It was a memorable moment which she felt vindicated her presence there.
We were all dedicated to NASA.
1959 saw the space programme moving forward at a great pace, with America and Russia vying to be the first to the moon. Katherine’s forte lay in the calculation of the trajectories for the accurate timing of space launches.
Katherine did the calculations for the launch time for Alan Shepard’s Mercury mission in 1961, the first American in space. She did the highly complex calculations for propelling space capsules into orbit around the moon, and those for sending landing units to and from the lunar surface. She plotted the navigational charts, guiding ships by the stars in case of electronic failure and in 1962, verified the first computer calculations of John Glenn’s orbit around Earth.
She participated in the authorship of the first textbook about space, after completing work in flight dynamics on a secret programme.
We wrote our own textbook, because there was no other text about space. I was in at the beginning, I was one of those lucky people.
In 1969, she calculated the trajectory for the Apollo 11 flight to the moon. Her later work included the Space Shuttle programme and plans for a Mars mission. In her time at NASA, she co-authored 26 scientific papers, retiring in 1986 after 33 years service.
I found what I was looking for at Langley. This was what a research mathematician did. I went to work every day for 33 years, happy. Never did I get up and say “I don’t want to go to work.”
Katherine has a host on honorary doctorates, five NASA special achievement awards, an Apollo Group Achievement Award for getting 1 of only 300 flags onto the moon on board Apollo 11, and a further team award for pioneering work in the field of navigation, when she was part of supporting the five spacecraft that orbited and mapped the moon in preparation for the Apollo program.
Up until 2008, she was still involved in maths, tutoring youngsters. She tells youngsters to be self-reliant and to learn everything they can. She celebrated her 90th birthday on Women’s Equality Day, 26 August 2008.
References include NASA, Visionary Project and The History Makers.
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