Mathematician Katherine Johnson’s contributions to NASA’s early space missions were crucial to their success. The world virtually ignored the African-American woman’s work for decades until her story inspired the film “Hidden Figures” in 2016.
Now, more than 50 years after she played a key role in the orbital mission of astronaut John Glenn, Johnson is being recognized in a big way. NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia named its newest building after the “human computer,” as she and her fellow co-workers came to be known.
NASA dedicated the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility (or CRF) on Sept. 22 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Her family and friends attended the event. This included her fellow “human computers”, students from Black Girls Code and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.
While she already has a LEGO figurine in her likeness, the 99-year-old Johnson is surprised by this latest act of recognition.
“You want my honest answer? I think they’re crazy,” she told NASA. “I always like something new. It gives credit to everybody who helped. I didn’t do anything alone but to try to get to the root of the question—and succeeded there.”
The history of Katherine Johnson
Born in 1918 in West Virginia, Johnson said numbers fascinated her. By the time she was 10 years old, she was a high school freshman. And, this happened in an era when school for African-Americans normally stopped at eighth grade, if not sooner, according to NASA. Johnson then skipped though grades to graduate from high school at 14 and from college at 18. In 1953, she began working for NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, as part of an all-black, all-women team.
In 1962, NACA called on Johnson to work on a historic project. Before his famous first orbital flight, John Glenn requested Johnson to recheck the calculations made by electronic computers.
“If she says they’re good,” Johnson remembers Glenn saying, “then I’m ready to go.”
Speaking at the ceremony for the new building, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe called Johnson a “trailblazer” and said she broke down barriers.
“Thank goodness for the book and movie to come out so people got to understand what this woman meant to our country,” he said. “When I think of Virginia and the history of what we’ve gone through … you’re at the top of that list.”
The Academy Award-nominated film “Hidden Figures” showcased this amazing group of women. Actresses Taraji P. Henson played Johnson, Octavia Spencer portrayed Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe took on the role of Mary Jackson.
“I like the stars, and the stories we were telling, and it was a joy to contribute to the literature that was going to come out,” Johnson said. “But little did I think it would go this far.”
Congratulations, Katherine! And thank you for inspiring us all.