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Former NASA Langley Mathematician to be Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

Newport News resident Katherine G. Johnson, a retired NASA Langley mathematician whose computations influenced space exploration efforts from Mercury through the shuttle program, will be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, President Barack Obama announced this week.

Johnson, who is among 17 recipients of the nation’s highest civilian honor, worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, from 1953 to 1986. She was one of a number of African-American women who worked as human computers for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the agency that preceded NASA. [To watch video of Johnson accepting the award, use this link.]

Katherine G. Johnson spoke to a NASA Langley writer in 2008

“Johnson exhibited exceptional technical leadership and is known especially for her calculations of the 1961 trajectory for Alan Shepard’s flight (first American in space), the 1962 verification of the first flight calculation made by an electronic computer for John Glenn’s orbit (first American to orbit the Earth), and the 1969 Apollo 11 trajectory to the moon,” the White House said in a news release.

Later in her career, Johnson worked on the space shuttle program and the Earth Resources Satellite and encouraged students to pursue careers in science and technology.

In the news release, President Obama said, “I look forward to presenting these 17 distinguished Americans with our nation’s highest civilian honor. From public servants who helped us meet defining challenges of our time to artists who expanded our imaginations, from leaders who have made our union more perfect to athletes who have inspired millions of fans, these men and women have enriched our lives and helped define our shared experience as Americans.”

This year’s list of honorees also includes the late Yogi Berra, the late Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Estefan, Itzhak Perlman, Stephen Sondheim, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand and James Taylor.

At age 97, Johnson doesn’t travel much, but she’s hoping to make the trip to Washington for the presentation ceremony on Nov. 24.

Joylette Hylick, Johnson’s 74-year-old daughter, says the family has known about the award for about three weeks, but was sworn to secrecy.

“We’re going to get Mama to the ceremony, if it kills us,” said Hylick. “We’re renting a van and already have our hotel reservations.”

Hylick said Johnson will be accompanied by eight members of her family. They include Hylick, her sister Kathy Moore and Johnson’s six grandchildren. 

In a 2008 feature, Johnson remembered her NASA days fondly.

“I found what I was looking for at Langley,” she says. “This was what a research mathematician did. I went to work every day for 33 years happy. Never did I get up and say I don’t want to go to work.”