West Virginia State graduate Katherine Johnson has received many accolades for her pioneering work at NASA, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Johnson's remarkable story is also told in the book and major motion picture "Hidden Figures," released nationwide in January 2016. For more information about the movie, please visit the offiical "HIdden Figures" website here.
The following article about Katherine Johnson first appeared in the 2016 edition of State magazine, West Virginia State University's flagship publication.
In November 2015, West Virginia State graduate Katherine G. Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award that can be bestowed upon a civilian.
In bestowing the award, President Barack Obama called Johnson, “a pioneer in American space history,” whose mathematical calculations “influenced every major space program from Mercury through the Shuttle program.”
High praise indeed for Johnson, a native of White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., who first came to Institute at the ripe old age of 10 to attend the high school that used to be part of West Virginia State’s campus.
“You got the best education there could be at the time (in Institute),” Johnson recalled recently in the documentary ‘Rise Up West Virginia.’ “You knew everybody. It was a small high school and it was pleasant to be there, but everybody knew you. Everybody in the high school knew everybody in the college and it was just like being at home.”
Johnson excelled at high school and graduated early, enrolling for college classes at West Virginia State by the time she was 15.
At State, Johnson became immersed in the mathematics program, and was inspired by one of her professors, Dr. William W. Schiefflin Claytor, to dream bigger. The young professor encouraged Johnson by telling her that one day she would make a great research mathematician, and that he would help her.
“Many professors tell you that you’d be good at this or that, but they don’t always help you with that career path. Professor Claytor made sure I was prepared to be a research mathematician,” Johnson recalled years later during an interview for a NASA educational publication.
Johnson excelled in her studies and graduated summa cum laude from State in 1937 at the age of 18 with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and French.
Johnson became a teacher herself for several years following graduation, but never forget about the encouragement her professor and mentor had given her at State to follow her passion for mathematics.
One day, at a family function in the 1950s, a relative mentioned to Johnson that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to NASA, was hiring. They were specifically looking for African-American women to work as “computers” in what was then their Guidance and Navigation Department. She applied for the job but the agency had already filled its positions for that year. The next year, she applied again and this time was accepted into the program. Johnson began working for the NACA in 1953.
Johnson started as one of the women who worked on problems assigned from engineers in what was then the Guidance and Control Branch. As Johnson worked on the problems, she would ask questions. She didn’t want to just do the work -- she wanted to know the “hows” and the “whys” and then the “why nots.” None of the other women had ever asked questions before, but by asking questions, Johnson began to stand out.
As a computer, she calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Even after NASA began using electronic computers, John Glenn requested that she personally recheck the calculations made by the new electronic computers before his flight aboard Friendship 7 – the mission on which he became the first American to orbit the Earth. She went on to do the calculations for the first actual moon landing in 1969.
Johnson worked at the agency until 1986, when she retired after 33 years of service. During her tenure at NASA, Johnson received many prestigious awards. Among them were the NASA Lunar Orbiter Award and three NASA Special Achievement Awards. She was named Mathematician of the Year in 1997 by the National Technical Association. In addition, Johnson has been honored with an honorary Doctor of Law degree from the State University of New York and honorary Doctor of Science degrees from Capitol College in Maryland and Old Dominion University in Virginia.
“She’s one of the greatest minds ever to grace our agency or our country, and because of the trail she blazed, young Americans like my granddaughters can pursue their own dreams without a feeling of inferiority,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at the time Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Katherine’s legacy is a big part of the reason that my fellow astronauts and I were able to get to space; it’s also a big part of the reason that today there is space for women and African-Americans in the leadership of our nation, including the White House.”