Yogi Berra. James Taylor. Gloria Estefan. Stephen Sondheim. Barbra Streisand. Steven Spielberg. And Katherine Johnson. One of these names is not like the other.
The 94-year-old West Virginia native isn’t one of the greatest baseball players of all time or a big Hollywood star; she’s a pioneer in American space history.
Next week, she’ll join Taylor and Spielberg and Estefan at the White House to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
(The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest honor awarded to civilians.)
Johnson worked for years as a mathematician at NASA and her “computations have influenced every major space program from Mercury through the Shuttle program,” according to the White House.
Here are just some of her accomplishments:
- Calculated the trajectory for the flight Alan Shepard, the first American in space, in 1961.
- She verified the first flight calculation made by an electronic computer for John Glenn’s orbit, first American to orbit the earth, in 1962.
- She also verified the flight calculation for the 1969 Apollo 11 trajectory to the moon.
- Later in her 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.
Not bad for a girl from White Sulphur Springs.
Born in 1918, Johnson enrolled at West Virginia State at the age of 14 and graduated at the top of her class by 18. She eventually joined NASA after the agency allowed African American women to work there.
NASA wrote this on its website in 2013:
She was a simple girl from West Virginia who loved to count. Her love of mathematics took her well beyond her small world; some could say it even took her from Earth all the way to the stars. She was a trailblazer, forging a path that would allow many others to follow in her steps. Her spirit and determination helped lead NASA into a new era, and for that the agency is grateful.
Johnson, now retired, lives in Hampton, Virginia according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.