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UJ honours NASA pioneer and African-American icon Katherine Johnson

​Failure will never overtake one if you are determined to succeed. One cannot change the past but if one has passion you will find a way to make your dreams a reality. This was the message of Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore when they accepted an honorary doctorate on behalf of their mother Kathrine Johnson at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) on Monday, 29 April 2019.

Uj Honours Nasa Pioneer

UJ bestowed an Honorary Doctoral Degree on African-American icon, Katherine Johnson in recognition of her pioneering role and body of work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Says Professor Debra Meyer, the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science at UJ: “Mrs Johnson paved the way for young women, in particular black women, to work and excel in STEM fields and she did this in a time when segregation was the norm, and the deliberate exclusion of black people from intellectual pursuits, the order of the day. Katherine Johnson’s mathematics talent and computer skills, gave the United States of America, the edge in winning the space race. Her work contributed to putting the first men into space and eventually on the moon. During her more than three decade long career at NASA, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations, combining her mathematics talent with computer skills to solve problems of an astro-physics nature.”

From a young age, Mrs Johnson, who turns 101 on 26 August counted everything and could easily solve mathematical equations. She attended West Virginia State High School and graduated from high school at age fourteen. She then received her BS degree in French and Mathematics from West Virginia State University (formerly West Virginia State College) in 1937. She was one of the first African Americans to enrol in the mathematics programme at West Virginia University. The mother of three daughters has been married to James Johnson for six decades, since 1959.

Upon completion of college, Mrs Johnson began teaching in elementary and high schools in Virginia and West Virginia. In 1953, she joined Langley Research Centre as a research mathematician for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), where she put her mathematics skills to work. She calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Even after NASA began using electronic computers, John Glenn requested that she personally recheck the calculations made by the new electronic computers before his flight aboard Friendship 7 – the mission on which he became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Mrs Johnson co-authored twenty-six scientific papers, has been the recipient of NASA’s Lunar Spacecraft and Operation’s Group Achievement Award and NASA’s Apollo Group Achievement Award. On 24 November 2015, she received the United States’ highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Barack H. Obama.

“Mrs Johnson, who was one of the inspirations behind the novel and film Hidden Figures, throughout her career demonstrated distinguished achievement which is in line with the University’s vision, mission and values. UJ and the Faculty of Science in particular are greatly honoured to confer the degree of Philosophiae Doctor Honoris causa upon her.”

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