Celebrate All Scientists: Katherine Johnson

Celebrate All Scientists

March 8 is International Women’s Day, and today Liberty Science Center celebrates NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson!

Katherine Johnson (1918 – 2020) was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures,” and in 2017 she was honored with a Genius Award at LSC’s Genius Gala.

But Johnson’s story began in 1918, when she was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. At only 10, Johnson began attending high school, and at the age of 18 she graduated with the highest honors from West Virginia State College with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and French. In 1939, Johnson became one of the first African American students to enroll in a graduate program at West Virginia University, where she continued her studies in mathematics.

In 1953, Johnson began her career at NASA as a “human computer” – a term used for those tasked with solving difficult math problems by themselves, long before computers like those we have today existed.

Johnson’s ability to calculate precise trajectories was essential to the U.S. space program’s early successful launches. In 1961, she calculated the path for Freedom 7, the spacecraft that put the first U.S. astronaut in space. Most notably, in 1969, she was part of the team that calculated where and when to launch the rocket for the Apollo 11 mission – an initiative that sent the first three astronauts to the moon! Johnson later worked on the space shuttle program before retiring in 1986.

Johnson’s courage was outstanding. In her long career, she broke the barriers of both gender and race, and inspired women of all backgrounds globally with her accomplishments. She received numerous awards and honors for her work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, NASA named a building after her in their Langley Research Center in Virginia.

Throughout her retirement, Johnson continued to encourage young scientists to study and work hard. She encouraged them to learn more about STEM careers and to never give up on their dreams. “Like what you do, and then you will do your best,” she said in an interview with NASA.

Click here to watch LSC’s tribute to Katherine Johnson at our Genius Gala in 2017, including a speech from her daughter Joylette Goble Hylick.

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