My wife and I watched the movie “Hidden Figures” over the weekend, and the best part was discovering that one of the three main characters, Katherine Johnson, is a West Virginia native.
Here’s what WVU Magazine had to say in a story about Johnson and other “Barrier Breakers“:
You’ve likely heard about the new biographical drama film ‘Hidden Figures,’ about a team of three black female mathematicians who helped calculate flight trajectories for groundbreaking space projects, including the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon.
The leader of the group was White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., native Katherine Johnson, also the first black woman to desegregate graduate studies at WVU in 1938. At the time, she was one of three black students, and the only female, to attend graduate studies at WVU following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that required public universities to accept black graduate students if similar courses weren’t available at black colleges.
Although her stay at WVU was brief – she spent just one summer here – Johnson was awarded an honorary degree from the university in 2016 and is widely acclaimed as an American space pioneer. In 2015, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given by the president. Following a historic career with NASA, Johnson, now 98, lives in Newport News, Va.”
I love learning the stories of famous West Virginians, especially those whose successes shatter the stereotypes of the great Mountain State as the land of hillbillies, rednecks and rubes. You can learn more about Johnson via NASA, which ended its story about her by saying, “Not bad, for a little girl from West Virginia.”
Here’s what President Obama had to say about Johnson when awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, followed by the text of the award citation:
Growing up in West Virginia, Katherine Johnson counted everything. She counted steps. She counted dishes. She counted the distance to the church. By 10 years old, she was in high school. By 18, she had graduated from college with degrees in math and French. As an African-American woman, job options were limited — but she was eventually hired as one of several female mathematicians for the agency that would become NASA.
Katherine calculated the flight path for America’s first mission in space, and the path that put Neil Armstrong on the moon. She was even asked to double-check the computer’s math on John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth. So if you think your job is pressure-packed, hers meant that forgetting to carry the one might send somebody floating off into the Solar System. In her 33 years at NASA, 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.
Citation: With her razor-sharp mathematical mind, Katherine G. Johnson helped broaden the scope of space travel, charting new frontiers for humanity’s exploration of space, and creating new possibilities for all humankind. From sending the first American to space to the first moon landing, she played a critical role in many of NASA’s most important milestones. Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.