#RespectYourElders: Katherine Johnson, 100, is an American mathematician and former NASA employee who was vital to the success of some of history’s most important space missions. She’s one of the first African Americans to work as a NASA scientist and a central character in the film “Hidden Figures“.
Johnson was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She was naturally gifted at math and began solving equations at a young age. Johnson excelled in school and graduated from West Virginia State High School at 14. She then received her bachelor’s degree in French and Mathematics with highest honors at 18 from West Virginia State University.
Johnson taught at a black public school in Virginia after graduating. She briefly enrolled in a prestigious graduate math program before dropping out to start a family with her husband. For the next 13 years, Johnson quietly raised three daughters and returned to teaching.
In 1952 her life completely changed. Johnson learned from a relative that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA) Langley Laboratory was hiring an all-black computing team. This is where she met Dorothy Vaughan — another central character in “Hidden Figures” — who was leading the team. Johnson spent four years analyzing data from flight tests, and because of her race, worked in a segregated wing and used separate facilities. However, this didn’t deter her, and she was soon involved in one of the most important missions in space history.
The Soviet Union successfully launched the Sputnik satellite into space in 1957, kicking off the space race between the Russians and Americans. Shortly after, Congress passed an act that transformed NACA into the civilian space agency, NASA.
Johnson joined NASA’s Space Controls Branch the following year and calculated the flight trajectory for Alan Sheard, who was the first American to enter space. Soon after, she helped verify the mathematics behind John Glenn’s orbit around Earth. In 1969, the U.S. reached its greatest achievement yet in space — landing on the moon. Johnson calculated the flight trajectory for Apollo 11’s historic mission. She retired from NASA in 1986.
Johnson’s remarkable career as a NASA scientist broke down stereotypes about race and gender.
“Girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing. Sometimes they have more imagination than men,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s substantial collection of awards and honorary degrees includes a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. And at age 100, the awards keep coming. NASA also recently renamed the Independent Verification and Validation Facility for her, to the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility.
On August 26 of this year, Johnson will turn 101 years old, which, fittingly, is also Women’s Equality Day.