Here's a challenging problem: What do you get a groundbreaking NASA mathematician for her 100th birthday?
The living legend, who turns 100 on Aug. 26, says all she wants is for young girls to "bring the spirit of curiosity to everything you do," she tells MAKERS exclusively. And remember "my father always told me that no matter how smart I was, I was no better than any other person—and no less."
The noted mathematician, who calculated the path that put man on the moon as well as John Glenn's orbit around the Earth, will mark her centennial birthday with friends and family at her alma mater West Virginia State University. On Aug. 25, the college will unveil a life-size bronze statue of the famous alumnae on the campus where she earned her undergraduate degree at age 18. She will then be honored by her sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha with a luncheon followed by a birthday dinner hosted by West Virginia State University.
On Sunday, Johnson and her family—including her daughters—plan on hosting a picnic at the park where she often played as a child.
Johnson was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, WV. The youngest of four children raised by her mother Joylette, a teacher, and her father, Joshua, a handyman at the Greenbrier Hotel, Johnson always gravitated towards numbers. "They tell me I counted everything," Johnson said in her MAKERS interview. "I was the youngest. I wound up ahead of my brother maybe two grades. I don't remember how many. I entered college. I was 15. I was gonna be a math teacher because that was it. You could be a nurse or a teacher."
But while she attended West Virginia State University, the noted African-American mathematician W.W. Schieffelin Claytor, PhD. encouraged her to pursue more advanced math courses. "He said, you'd make a good research mathematician. I said, 'Oh? What do they do? He said, 'You'll find out.' So he had me take all the courses in the catalog. Sometimes I was the only person in the course."
Johnson, however, couldn't see how any of the advanced work would add up to a career. "I said, 'Where will I find a job?'" Johnson recalls of a conversation she had with Professor Claytor. "He said, 'You'll look till you find it.'"
After seven years of working as a math teacher, a family member flagged that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (this agency was shut down in 1958 and transitioned to become National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA) was looking for mathematicians to be "women computers." Says Johnson: "They just wanted somebody to do all the little stuff while they did the thinking."
During the space race in the 1960s, Johnson pushed her way into high-level meetings because "I wanted to know what it was they were looking for. So I wound up doing what it was they were trying to find out."
"They'd call up a group of engineers and have a briefing as to what they were gonna have to do," recalls Johnson. "And I asked, 'Could I go?' They said, 'Women don't ever go to those.' I said, 'Is there a law against it?' They said, 'No... well, let her go ahead.'"
By the time she retired in 1986, Johnson's work had influenced every major space mission. But of all her contributions at NASA, she's most proud of the success of the Apollo mission. "They were going to the moon," she says. "I computed the path that would get you there."
In recent years, Johnson has (finally!) received all the accolades she deserved. In addition to the statue at her alma mater, Johnson earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama and she also cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony of the new Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility on NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
While Neil Armstrong made "one small step for man," Katherine Johnson was making giant leaps for all women.