When Katherine Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in 1918, the thought of a human on the moon was pure fantasy.
And the thought of African-American woman making it happen was downright preposterous.
But in 1969, Katherine Johnson, an African-American woman known as NASA’s “human computer,” was responsible for the calculations that made Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” possible.
Johnson was obsessed with counting as a young child which led to an intense interest in mathematics during elementary school. Public education wasn’t allowed for black children past the eighth grade, so Johnson’s parents sent her to attend high school on what is now the campus of West Virginia State.
After graduating high school at the age of 14, she attended West Virginia State where she studied math and science. That led to a job at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics in Hampton, Virginia, which would later be known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Johnson advanced further than the other women in her department because of her unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
“The women did what they were told to do,” she told NASA. “They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.”
In 1962, President Kennedy tasked NASA with the seemingly-impossible task of sending a man to the moon.
After 33 years of service, Johnson retired from NASA in 1986. During her career, she received many prestigious awards, including: the NASA Lunar Orbiter Award and three NASA Special Achievement awards.
In 2015 she awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was presented to her by her “boo,” Barack Obama.
On August 27, 2018, NASA celebrated Johnson’s 100th birthday on Twitter:
West Virginia State honored Johnson by erecting a statue of her on campus and creating a scholarship in her name.
Today the University community gathered to dedicate a statue and scholarship in honor of our amazing alum Katherine Johnson. The statue will serve as a source of inspiration to current and future students of all that is possible through dedication, hard work and perseverance. pic.twitter.com/iFOqxnr1eH
— WV State University (@WVStateU) August 25, 2018
When asked the secret to her longevity, Johnson told the Daily Press, “I’m just lucky — the Lord likes me,” she said. “And I like him.”
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