Katherine Johnson


Tribune News Service

IT’S AN HONOR. Former U.S. president, Barack Obama gives Katherine Johnson the presidential medal of freedom in 2015. The presidential medal of freedom is the highest civilian honor that a U.S. citizen can earn. Katherine received it because of her significant contributions to NASA, particularly her calculations for America’s first human spaceflight (with Alan Shepard).

Katherine Johnson was born in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918. She was an incredibly gifted student, skipping several grades. Johnson attended West Virginia State College where she studied mathematics, and graduated in 1937.
Then, she started teaching in Virginia at an all-black school, until West Virginia University invited Johnson to be their first African American, female student in 1939.
She later returned to teaching, and taught until 1952, when she heard about a job opening at NACA (now called NASA).
There, she worked from 1953 to 1986. Johnson calculated for projects including Alan Shepard’s space flight, Apollo’s Lunar Landing and John Glenn’s space flight. She also coauthored many reports.
In 1962, NASA was starting to use computers for calculations, but astronauts did not trust the machines. So, Glenn requested to have Johnson check the computer calculations. NASA reports that Katherine recalls Glenn saying, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”
Another of her accomplishments was when Barack Obama awarded Johnson the presidential medal of freedom in 2015. The recent movie “Hidden Figures” tells her amazing story.