Katherine Johnson is one of the latest people to join the centenarian club—she welcomed her 100th birthday on August 26, 2018. Known as a “human computer,” the talented woman overcame racial and gender discrimination to become an integral part of the NASA space program. Her calculations helped make early human space flight possible. Chances are, you might be familiar with Johnson and her inspiring story; she was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.
Born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson revealed her talent for mathematics early in life. At that time, due to segregation, public education for black children stopped at 8th grade, but her parents arranged for her to attend high school on the campus of what’s now West Virginia State University. Johnson graduated high school at 14 and then enrolled in West Virginia State where she majored in French and mathematics. Afterward, she joined the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics—later known as NASA.
At NASA, Johnson used her math expertise to calculate trajectories and launch windows for ships. Some of her most well-known contributions saw Alan Shepard into space in 1961 and John Glenn to orbit the Earth in 1962. Johnson was awarded for her work by President Barack Obama in 2015. He gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor for a civilian. “In her 33 years at NASA,” Obama remarked, “Katherine was a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender—showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science and reach for the stars.”
So, what does Johnson attribute to her long life? Faith, along with good fortune, is important. “I’m just lucky,” she stated, “the Lord likes me. And I like him.”
Katherine Johnson, a former NASA “human computer” who broke racial and gender barriers, just celebrated her 100th birthday.