KATHERINE JOHNSON. Gifted mathematician. Aerospace pioneer. Defying barriers of gender and race. Because nothing in life could hold you back, we have been to the moon, we have seen the stars.
You were bound for college at just 15. By junior year, you had taken every math class in the catalog, and a few more created just for you. After graduating summa cum laude in math and French, you took a teaching job in a Virginia public school. Then in 1939, you were handpicked, along with two male students, to integrate West Virginia University, becoming the first black woman to attend.
But it was in 1953, when you went to work as a mathematician for the Langley Research Center in the segregated pool of women computers, that your own course changed the course of history. A temporary assignment to the flight research team became permanent, because your specialty—calculating space launch trajectories—proved essential. With the same brilliance and diligence that were hallmarks of your youth, you put pen to paper, chalk to chalkboard, to plot the flight path for the 1961 mission that made Alan Shepard the first American in space. In 1962, John Glenn asked for you and you alone to double-check electronically generated figures before his orbit around the earth. And when Neil Armstrong was the first ever to set foot on the moon, you proudly watched on a small TV, knowing the part your calculations had played. You also wrote or co-wrote 26 research reports—the first woman in the Flight Research Division to receive credit as an author. And in 33 years at NASA, you never missed a single day of doing the work you loved.
Ms. Johnson, you are an American hero, along with every woman at Langley. Along with Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, and anyone anywhere who has had to walk half a mile to use a bathroom, or has boldly stepped out of the shadows to make a difference. You took others into space, making space here on earth for women in science everywhere.
We know how much you love to count, so please count on this: We can’t calculate the path that our students will take when they graduate to find their dreams, but we know that your remarkable story will inspire them, however it is they get there.
It is my honor to present you with the 2018 Barnard Medal of Distinction, along with a universe of thanks.
— Presented on February 4, 2018, Newport News, Virginia