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Spelman College Celebrates the Life and Legacy of Katherine Johnson

February 2020

Katherine JohnsonThe Spelman community celebrates the life and legacy of Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, a pioneer of the American space movement. Johnson received a honorary degree from the College during its 2017 Commencement ceremony. She was a true legend and mathematical genius who embodied the essence of "Black Girl Magic." 

Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson was trained as a mathematician and physicist. Because the local schools only offered classes to African Americans through the eighth grade, her father enrolled his children in a school 125 miles away from their home, where Johnson’s mother and three siblings lived during the academic year until they all graduated from college. Graduating from high school at age 14, she attended West Virginia State College (now University), where she majored in mathematics and French and graduated summa cum laude at age 18, earning a Bachelor of Science degree.  She was one of the first African Americans to attend West Virginia University where she completed several graduate courses.

After teaching for seven years in elementary and high schools in West Virginia and Virginia, in 1953, Johnson joined the Langley Research Center (LRC), which later became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as a pool mathematician or “human computer.”  At NASA, Johnson provided computations for the early space program, including computing the launch window for astronaut Alan Shepard’s 1961 Mercury mission. She also provided calculations to propel space capsules into orbit around the moon and to send landing units to and from the lunar surface. Johnson plotted backup navigational charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. In 1962, computers, which replaced human computers, were used for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth. But, according to Johnson, NASA officials called on her to verify the numbers generated by the computers. She also calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo flight to the moon, which she has described as her most significant work.

While working in NASA’s Flight Dynamics Branch at LRC, Johnson helped author the first textbook on space. Later in her career, she worked on the space shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and plans for a mission to Mars. Johnson co-authored 28 scientific papers during her 33 years with NASA before retiring in 1986.

Hidden Figures Katherine JohnsonJohnson’s social influence as a pioneer in space science and computing is demonstrated by the honors she has received, including the Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team award at NASA; numerous NASA LRC Special Achievement Awards; National Technical Association Mathematician of the Year; and honorary doctorates from the State University of New York at Farmingdale, Capitol College in Laurel, Maryland, and Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. In 1968 and 1999, she was honored as the West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year for her scientific achievements, and in 1997 she was recognized as one of 24 Black inventors and scientists at the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia.   In 2000, Johnson was inducted into the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame in Atlanta.

Johnson was one of the 17 recipients of the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in November 2015. In 2016, she received the Presidential Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from West Virginia University, and NASA dedicated the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.  

"Hidden Figures," the highly acclaimed film about Johnson and her African American colleagues at NASA, was released in late 2016. In 2018, Mattel announced a Barbie doll in the likeness of Johnson, with a NASA identity badge. Johnson was announced as one of the members of the inaugural class of "Government Executive's" Government Hall of Fame in 2019.
Johnson passed away on Feb. 24, 2020 at the age of 101 years old.

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