7. Katherine C. Johnson: A Rocket Scientists Whose Math Skills Are Out of This World

A young Katherine Johnson working at NASA.

A young Katherine Johnson working at NASA

Once known as a “human computer,” Katherine C. Johnson used her math skills to help send astronauts into space and return them safely to Earth. As a pioneer at NASA, even before it became NASA, she contributed to every major space program — from computing the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s flight when he became the first American in space to working on Apollo 11’s mission to the moon.

“She was even asked to double-check the computer’s math on John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth,” President Obama said before presenting her the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. “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.”

As a little girl growing up in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Johnson said that she liked to count and learn. By the age of 10, she was in high school and at 15 she was crunching numbers as a student at West Virginia State College.

Once the door cracked open for African Americans and women, she became a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to NASA in 1953.

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman credits the astrophysicist and mathematician for “providing the foundation that will someday allow NASA to send our astronauts to Mars.”

Johnson’s story is among those slated to be featured in a film based on a forthcoming HarperCollins book titled Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.

“In her 33 years at NASA,” President Obama said, “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.”

Click here to listen to Johnson tell the story of how she built her groundbreaking career.