THE WHITE HOUSE—Katherine G. Johnson, a pioneer in American space history and a native West Virginian, was named Monday as a 2015 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor.
Johnson, 97, was born in White Sulphur Springs, but left her hometown at age 14 because there were no schools past eighth grade for a young black woman.
A NASA mathematician, Johnson’s computations have influenced every major space program from Mercury through the Shuttle program, according to the biography provided by the White House.
Johnson was hired as a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the agency that preceded NASA, after hiring was opened to African-Americans and women.
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 (first American to orbit the earth) and the 1969 Apollo 11 trajectory to the moon.
In her later NASA career, Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle program and the Earth Resources Satellite and encouraged students to pursue careers in science and technology fields.
“Katherine G. Johnson is a pioneer in American space history,” the White House said in announcing Johnson’s medal, one of 17 announced Monday.
Johnson retired in 1986. She lives in Hampton, VA, and often speaks to students about pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is given to individuals who have made “especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Johnson will be honored at a ceremony at the White House on Nov. 24. Others who will also receive the medal next week include: Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Gloria Estefan, Itzhak Perlman, Shirley Chisholm, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand and James Taylor.