Former NASA mathematician and physicist Katherine Johnson, known for calculating historic space launch trajectories by hand and shattering gender and racial barriers in science, received the nation’s highest civilian award
Physicist and mathematician Katherine Johnson, a former NASA “computer” who calculated by hand the flight trajectories for Alan Shepard’s historic first American flight to space, John Glenn’s first American orbit around the Earth, and the Apollo 11 moon shot, is one of 17 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year. President Obama awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor to her in person in a ceremony held at the White House on Nov. 24.
“Katherine G. Johnson is a pioneer in American space history. A NASA mathematician, Johnson's computations have influenced every major space program from Mercury through the Shuttle program,” read the White House press release. Johnson’s contributions are all the more remarkable given that she is a female African-American who grew up at the height of tensions around racial segregation in the nation. Said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement:
Katherine Johnson once remarked that even though she grew up in the height of segregation, she didn’t think much about it because ‘I didn’t have time for that… don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.’
The truth in fact, is that Katherine is indeed better. 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.
Johnson’s remarkable talent in mathematics was coupled with a boldness of character
Born in 1918, Johnson was drawn to math from a young age, leaving her West Virginia hometown to enroll in high school at the age of 10. She continued on to a mathematics major program at West Virginia State College by the age of 15, graduated summa cum laude at the age of 18, and taught math for a number of years. In 1953, when the predecessor to NASA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, opened up hiring to African-Americans and women for the first time, Johnson was hired as a research mathematician.
Johnson had a reputation at NASA for bucking the expectations that women were to do what they were told. Instead, Johnson showed confidence among men and boldly took initiative in her work. “I asked questions. I wanted to know why,” said Johnson in an interview with NASA. In calculating the trajectories of capsules along a parabola, “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.”
Said NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman in a statement:
We are all so fortunate that Katherine insisted on asking questions, and insisted on relentlessly pursuing answers. We are fortunate that when faced with the adversity of racial and gender barriers, she found the courage to say ‘tell them I’m coming.’ We are also fortunate that Katherine has chosen to take a leading role in encouraging young people to pursue education in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math.
Physics and mathematics continue to be central to Johnson’s world
Currently a resident of Hampton, Virginia, Johnson often speaks to students about pursuing careers in STEM. At the age of 97, physics and mathematics remains the center of her world. “There will always, always be mathematics. Everything is physics and math,” said Johnson.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is presented 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.” The President himself selects the recipients with the assistance of senior White House staff, and his picks have been described as a very personal decision. Other awardees this year include former baseball player Yogi Berra, former representative Shirley Chisholm, pop music artists Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), violinist Itzhak Perlman, theater composer Stephen Sondheim, movie director Steven Spielberg, actor and singer Barbra Streisand, and singer-songwriter James Taylor.