For half a century, Katherine Johnson’s heroics within NASA were largely hidden from the outside world.
Now, her name and legacy will stay front and center at a NASA facility that epitomizes her work.
The Independent Verification and Validation Facility has been renamed the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) Facility, NASA said.
“The facility’s program contributes to the safety and success of NASA’s highest-profile missions by assuring that mission software performs correctly,” the space agency said.
The renaming couldn’t be more apt for Johnson, who hand-calculated the trajectory for America’s first manned trip to space.
In the 1950s, before computers were widely used and trusted, human mathematicians were called “computers.” And NASA’s “Computer Pool” relied heavily on the extraordinarily complex, hand-written calculations of black female employees.
Any little error could spell disaster. But Johnson and the Computer Pool made calculations for groundbreaking, successful space missions, including Alan Shepard’s 1961 voyage — which made him the first American in space — and John Glenn’s 1962 mission, which made him the first American to orbit Earth.
But Johnson’s contributions, like those of many female “computers,” were often overlooked in history. That was until 2016, when the best-selling novel and movie “Hidden Figures” shined a light on their work and the challenges they faced — including racial segregation at NASA.
A pivotal scene in the film features Glenn nervously preparing for his flight. Computing machines were so new Glenn was skeptical of their calculations. So Glenn requested that Johnson — whose brilliance was known within NASA — independently confirm the calculations by hand before he felt comfortable enough to start his trip three times around the Earth.
But Johnson’s rise within NASA wasn’t easy.
She was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where education for black people ended in eighth grade.
But her parents recognized her talent for math, so they sent her to get a high school education on the campus of West Virginia State Institute, a black college 100 miles away. It paid off, and she graduated from high school at 14 and then graduated from West Virginia State in 1937 at 18.
Like many women of her time she became a teacher — but her sights were set on becoming a research mathematician.
Following an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in the defense industry, Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory began recruiting black people with college degrees in the 1940s for the computer pool.
For years, the women occupied a segregated wing, “West Area Computing,” and used separate facilities. That’s where Johnson started in 1953.
After just two weeks, she transferred to the facility’s Flight Research Division. She worked there for years until the Soviet satellite Sputnik kicked off the space race between the United States and the USSR.
Johnson pushed her way into briefings traditionally attended only by men and secured a place in the inner circle of the American Space Program.
Her work helped map the moon’s surface ahead of the 1969 landing and played a role in the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts. Johnson retired in 1986.
Three decades later, the head of NASA said it’s only appropriate rename a facility in Johnson’s honor in her home state of West Virginia.
“I am thrilled we are honoring Katherine Johnson in this way as she is a true American icon who overcame incredible obstacles and inspired so many,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
The facility is in the process of planning a rededication ceremony.