Visionary STEM Leader

Katherine Johnson

August 26, 1918 – February 24, 2020

A West Virginia girl who “loved to count everything” and inspirational mathematician, Katherine Johnson grew up to be awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom and have two NASA buildings named for her. She was one of the now-famous NASA human computers portrayed in the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures”.

Johnson’s early curiosity and math skills propelled her to graduate from high school at 14 and earn an honors college degree in Mathematics and French. She was one of 3 students handpicked to integrate the University of West Virginia graduate school, though she dropped out to teach and raise a family. At age 34, she accepted a job at NASA in an all-Black unit doing tedious hand calculations of flight trajectories. Her skills, maturity, and persistence led her to the Flight Research Division, where she initiated and developed early orbital models for astronaut flights. She was instrumental in the adoption of the new electronic computers when they became available as well as verifying the calculations that were produced.

When asked about her important contributions, Johnson noted the orbital linking calculations for the Apollo Lunar Lander and Command Modules, as well as later work on the Space Shuttle and Landsat Satellite. She was author or co-author of 26 NASA research reports. Incredibly, this charismatic and gregarious mathematician accomplished all this while breaking the dual barriers of racism and sexism.

NASA has dedicated two buildings to her: the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Center in Virginia and the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility in West Virginia. In 2020, NASA launched a satellite named for her. Locally, the new Katherine Johnson Technology Magnet Academy in DeSoto is named for her.

Education

  • High School degree, school associated with West Virginia State College
  • B.S. (summa cum laude), Mathematics & French, West Virginia State College, 1937
  • Graduate studies, University of West Virginia, 1939

 

Special Affiliations, Awards, and Honors

  • Honorary Degrees: West Virginia State University, West Virginia University, College of William and Mary, Spelman College, Johannesburg University (South Africa)
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2015
  • Congressional Gold Medal, 2019
  • Hubbard Medal of National Geographic Society, 2020 

 

Quote

“I loved going to work every single day.” 

“Call her [Johnson], if she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go!” - Astronaut John Glenn, worried about electronic calculations before blast off

Links to References

Text: NASA

Text: New York Times

Text: Nature.com

Quote: Everyday Power Quotes

Comment: Space.com