For Katherine G. Johnson, a love of math, coupled with positive self-assurance and sprinkled with a little tenacity, led to a life of ground-breaking accomplishments. Johnson’s hard work and life-long passion for mathematical innovation at NASA is being honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, which will be presented to her on November 24th. Travel can be complicated for the 97-year-old badass, but her daughter is ensuring that she gets this moment of honor. “We’re going to get Mama to the ceremony, if it kills us…We’re renting a van and already have our hotel reservations.”
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… Johnson exhibited exceptional technical leadership and is known especially for her calculations of the 1961 trajectory for Alan Shepard’s flight (first American in space), the 1962 verification of the first flight calculation made by an electronic computer for John Glenn’s orbit (the first American to orbit the Earth), and the 1969 Apollo 11 trajectory to the moon,” the White House said in the Medal of Freedom press release.
True to her voracious appetite for learning, Johnson started out studying anything and everything at West Virgina State College — but this soon changed after one professor implored her to professionally pursue her mathematical gift. Upon receiving her degree in research mathematics, Johnson went on to teach, as this was the only option available to her at the time. Johnson was later hired at NACA (NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) as part of a program that hired African-American women mathematicians to work as “human computers,” and soon distinguished herself among the group. “The women did what they were told to do,” she explained. “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.”
I’m as good as anybody, but no better.
Her self-assurance was certainly needed- this period in our country’s history was rabid with sexist attitudes toward women in the work place, and professional prospects were even worse for black women. Despite the social pressure, Johnson always saw herself as an equal and made sure that others treated her as such. “My dad taught us, ‘You are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better,’” she said. “I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.”
For her assuredness, tenacity, and uninhibited pursuit of excellence, NASA is indebted. “Her love of mathematics took her well beyond her small world; some could say it even took her from Earth all the way to the stars. She was a trailblazer, forging a path that would allow many others to follow in her steps. Her spirit and determination helped lead NASA into a new era, and for that the agency is grateful.”