American mathematician and NASA employee Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, by President Barack Obama. But why is she so famous?
Katherine Johnson (1918 – 2020) helped to send NASA astronauts to the moon with her calculations of orbital mechanics, which determined the flight-paths of spacecraft. Johnson worked for NASA for over 30 years and her life was celebrated in the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures”, bringing her wider fame.
Read on to learn more about Katherine’s incredible career and how she broke barriers working at NASA.
An Incredible Gift
NASA legend Katherine Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in 1918. She was a whizz kid from the get go and her mathematical brilliance and love for the subject meant that by age 10 she was ready for high school, and by 18 she had graduated college, with two degrees!
Whilst in college, Katherine was encouraged in particular by a Professor Claytor, who told her, “you’d make a great research mathematician”. Katherine said his encouragement and tuition made sure she was fully prepared to pursue her passion.
She worked for NASA from 1953 to 1986, joining as a female ‘computer’, but quickly stood out because of her curiosity and desire to look further than her job required.
Becoming part of the space team allowed Katherine to really shine. She calculated numerous trajectory paths for the rockets to put the first Americans in space, but said her proudest achievement was calculating the launch window for Apollo 11.
Johnson spoke at length about her love for her work and maintained that it was her passion: “I liked what I was doing. I like work. I liked the stars and the stories we were telling, and it was a joy”.
Breaking Gender and Racial Barriers
Though Katherine’s critical contributions remained largely uncelebrated for much of her life, there’s a lot to acknowledge. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine reflected, “Ms. Johnson helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of color in the universal human quest to explore space.”
Margaret Shetterley, who wrote the 2016 book “Hidden Figures”, said that Johnson’s story is an incredible gift which both opens doors and sheds lights on so many others’ stories, offering “a new way to look at black history, women’s history and American history”.
Beyond the strides she made at NASA, Johnson was one of three black students, and the only woman, selected to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools. Katherine enrolled at West Virginia University in 1939, a notable breakthrough, and one of many.
Continually reaching new milestones, Katherine’s persistence and incredible talent meant she was increasingly looked to as a leader at NASA, and the agency tweeted in her memory “we honor her legacy of excellence that broke down racial and social barriers”.
Awards and Honors
Katherine has a long list of achievements which include a number of awards.
In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to STEM. The White House released a statement saying, “she is a role model that we are excited for the world to know”.
Katherine was awarded another extraordinary honor in 2019, when she was given the Congressional Gold Medal. The highest honor a civilian can receive, Katherine was recognised for her role in the pioneering generation of female mathematicians at NASA.
Katherine has been awarded numerous honorary doctorates for her achievements. In addition, her many contributions to NASA were commemorated with the dedication of a new building at the Langley Research Centre in 2016 named the “Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility”.
In perfect summary of Katherine’s life and legacy, Senator Joe Manchin said that “through her brilliance, strength, and courage, she proved to the country that anyone—regardless of race, gender, or background—can touch the stars”.
Watch NASA’s YouTube video below, which remembers Katherine Johnson’s incredible life.