On Monday, November 16, at the age of 97, Katherine Johnson, a woman who had to move at the age of 14 in order to obtain education beyond eighth grade, was named a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, for her incredibly influential career in mathematics.
Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs WV; as a young black woman, there were no local high schools that would admit her. So she moved to Institute and enrolled in West Virginia State College at the age of 15, where she studied French and mathematics, because career options for black women at the time were not exactly vast.
“I was going to be a math teacher, because that was it,” she said. “You could be a nurse or a teacher.” She was drawn to math because, in her words, “You’re either right or you’re wrong.” She liked the certainty of it.
Indeed, after graduating summa cum laude at the age of 18, Johnson did teach math for a number of years. Until 1953 when the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA, opened hiring to African-Americans and women. She was hired as a research mathematician, part of a team of women tasked with solving problems that senior engineers assigned to them. But she soon began to stand out, asking questions and and attending briefings where other members of her team did not.
In an interview on NASA’s website, Johnson said, “The women did what they were told to do. 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.”
Johnson began to really show her mettle in 1961 when she calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s 1961 flight, the very first space manned space voyage conducted by the U.S. And she did it without a computer.
“The early trajectory was a parabola, and it was easy to predict where it would be at any point. 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.”
In 1962, when computers came into fashion, and John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, Johnson had achieved such a reputation for mathematical accuracy, that she was called upon to check the computer’s work.
“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 more than thirty year long career, Johnson played a critical role in every major U.S. space program, from Shepard’s first flight, to Glenn’s orbit of earth, to the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. She won the NASA Lunar Orbiter Award and three NASA Special Achievement Awards. Though she retired in 1986, she continues to speak to students about pursuing careers in mathematics, engineering, science and technology.
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 next Tuesday, November 24 at the White House alongside Steven Spielberg, Barbara Streisand, Gloria Estefan, James Taylor, Willie Mays, Yogi Berra, Itzhak Perlman, and Shirley Chisholm.
Source: Charleston Gazette-Mail