NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson Receives Presidential Medal

The Sloan Foundation is supporting the research and writing of a forthcoming book by Margot Lee Shetterly called Hidden Figures: The African-American Women Mathematicians Who Helped NASA and the United States Win the Space Race: An Untold Story. Katherine G. Johnson, one of the women featured in the book, was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama at a ceremony that took place November 24. Now 97 years old, Johnson, is a retired NASA “computer.” A “computer” was the job title for a mathematician who performed complex calculations before digital computers were used. As the subtitle of the book details, it tells the story of the African-American female computers who worked together with NASA engineers in the 1940s through 60s. The African-Americans first worked in a section segregated from their white counterparts until the two groups became integrated in the 1950s.

Author Margot Lee Shetterly is the daughter of one of the NASA Langley Research Center’s top scientists, and grew up knowing many of the female mathematicians also employed there. The seminal contribution to aeronautics and astronomics these women made helped put America at the forefront of the Space Race. Katherine G. Johnson calculated NASA’s first successful orbital mission and the trajectory for astronaut John Glenn, who made America’s third trip to space. HarperCollins will publish Shetterly’s book in 2016, and director, screenwriter, and producer Ted Melfi is currently adapting it into a film with FOX 2000.