Johnson was chosen as one of the first three African American students to attend West Virginia University when West Virginia integrated its graduate schools in 1939, making history in the Civil Rights movement. She was the first black female to attend West Virginia University, where she pursued a graduate degree in mathematics. Johnson found West Virginia University more hostile than West Virginia State College. She learned of a job opening at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in an all-black section, where she began working in 1953.
Johnson's incredible math skills and her work on flight test data was needed several years later as NASA undertook the task of putting astronaut John Glenn into orbit. Glenn himself told the team to get the girl to hand-check the equations the computers had worked out just prior to his launch into orbit.2 The computers that had been used to calculate the math needed to send spacecraft into orbit were still in infancy stages, and were erratic at times. Johnson's accuracy was often called upon to identify and prevent malfunctions. Her work helped make the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing a success, and she was part of the team responsible for safely returning the Apollo 13 spacecraft when it malfunctioned in space.
Johnson's long list of achievements led her to receive a number of honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. NASA awarded her with the Lunar Orbiter Award, three NASA Special Achievement Awards, and she was chosen as Mathematician of the Year in 1997. As stated by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Katherine's legacy is a big part of the reason that my fellow astronauts and I were able to get to space; it's also a big part of the reason that today there is space for women and African-Americans in the leadership of our nation, including the White House.
As of May 26th, 2017, the street between the White Sulphur Springs Public Library and the St. Thomas Episcopal Church is named Katherine Coleman Johnson Way. The street was selected because Johnson's father worked at the city library in its previous location, and because the library was an important part of the future mathematician's life.
Johnson lived on Church Street in White Sulphur Springs until she was 10 years old. Mayor Lloyd Haynes called Johnson one of the best-kept secrets ever, as Johnson's contributions to NASA, mathematics, women's rights, and the Civil Rights Movement were widely unknown until the release of the book and film Hidden Figures.
The small ceremony commemorating the dedication of Katherine Coleman Johnson capped off a series of honors following the public's growing interest in her life following the popularity of the Hollywood film Hidden Figures. The state of West Virginia now celebrates the 26th of August as Katherine Johnson Day.