Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, but left her home town at age 14 because, as a young black woman, there were no local schools she could attend after eighth grade.
On Monday, at age 97, Johnson was named a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, for a hugely influential career in mathematics that played a role in every major U.S. space program, from Alan Shepard’s first space flight up through the Space Shuttle.
Johnson’s work for the U.S. space program predates the creation of NASA. Her computations on flight trajectories were used on Shepard’s inaugural flight, John Glenn’s orbit of the earth and the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing.
“Katherine G. Johnson is a pioneer in American space history,” the White House said in announcing Johnson’s medal, one of 17 announced Monday.
In 1932, after she reached the limit of education available to black children in White Sulphur Springs, Johnson moved to Institute and enrolled at West Virginia State College, at the age of 15.
She majored in mathematics and French.
Career options for black women were limited at the time.
“I was going to be a math teacher, because that was it,” she said in a short film, from a series on influential women. “You could be a nurse or a teacher.”
She was drawn to math because of its certainties.
“You’re either right or you’re wrong,” she said. “That I liked about it.”
After graduating summa cum laude at the age of 18, Johnson did go on to teach math for a number of years.
In 1953, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the predecessor to NASA) opened hiring to African-Americans and women, and Johnson was hired as a research mathematician.
“She came to Langley and stepped into a man’s world,” Maj. Gen. Charles Frank Bolden Jr., the head of NASA, said earlier this year, speaking at the commencement exercises of WVSU.
Her job, initially, was to work with a team of women on problems that senior engineers assigned to them.
But she soon began to stand out — asking questions, attending briefings and meetings and working with the engineers.
“The women did what they were told to do,” Johnson said, in an interview on NASA’s website. “They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions, I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.”
In an era before computers were dominant, Johnson calculated the trajectory for Shephard’s 1961 flight, the second manned space voyage and the first American one.
“The early trajectory was a parabola, and it was easy to predict where it would be at any point,” Johnson said in 2008. “Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start. I said, ‘Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.’ That was my forte.”
By 1962, when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, NASA was relying more on computers.
“You could do much more, much faster on computer,” Johnson said. “But when they went to computers, they called over and said, ‘tell her to check and see if the computer trajectory they had calculated was correct.’ So I checked it and it was correct.”
During the course of her career, Johnson won the NASA Lunar Orbiter Award and three NASA Special Achievement Awards.
“We wrote our own textbook, because there was no other text about space,” she said. “We just started from what we knew. We had to go back to geometry and figure all of this stuff out.”
She worked at Langley Air Force Base for more than three decades, until she retired in 1986.
Today, she lives in Hampton, Virginia, and often speaks to students about pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“There will always, always be mathematics,” she said. “Everything is physics and math.”
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is given to individuals who have made “especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Johnson will be honored at a ceremony at the White House on Nov. 24. Others who will also receive the medal next week include: Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Gloria Estefan, Itzhak Perlman, Shirley Chisholm, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand and James Taylor.
“From public servants who helped us meet defining challenges of our time to artists who expanded our imaginations, from leaders who have made our union more perfect to athletes who have inspired millions of fans, these men and women have enriched our lives and helped define our shared experiences as Americans,” President Barack Obama said, in a prepared statement.