CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, but left her home town at age 14 because, as a young black woman, there were no local schools she could attend after eighth grade.
On Monday, at age 97, Johnson was named a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, for a hugely influential career in mathematics that played a role in every major U.S. space program, from Alan Shepard’s first space flight up through the Space Shuttle.
Johnson’s work for the U.S. space program predates the creation of NASA. Her computations on flight trajectories were used on Shepard’s inaugural flight, John Glenn’s orbit of the earth and the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing.
“Katherine G. Johnson is a pioneer in American space history,” the White House said in announcing Johnson’s medal, one of 17 announced Monday.
In 1932, after she reached the limit of education available to black children in White Sulphur Springs, Johnson moved to Institute and enrolled at West Virginia State College, at the age of 15.
She majored in mathematics and French.
Career options for black women were limited at the time.
“I was going to be a math teacher, because that was it,” she said in a short film, from a series on influential women. “You could be a nurse or a teacher.”
She was drawn to math because of its certainties.
“You’re either right or you’re wrong,” she said. “That I liked about it.”
After graduating summa cum laude at the age of 18, Johnson did go on to teach math for a number of years.
In 1953, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the predecessor to NASA) opened hiring to African-Americans and women, and Johnson was hired as a research mathematician.
“She came to Langley and stepped into a man’s world…