A NASA facility in Fairmont, West Virginia, has been renamed. Once called simply the Independent Verification and Validation Facility, it now bears the addition of “Katherine Johnson.” The change was made to honor a native of the state whose work helped put men on the Moon 50 years ago.
Katherine Johnson is a brilliant African-American woman who spent 35 years as a mathematician for NASA. She was nicknamed the “human computer.” (But in those days, “computer” just meant a person who made computations. The room-sized electronic ancestors of the devices we know now were just appearing on the horizon then.) Her work calculating, checking, and rechecking mathematical computations was essential in achieving orbit around the Earth—and eventually in landing on the Moon. Her input was critical for determining three key components of space travel:
trajectory (the curved path a rocket takes after liftoff);
launch windows (the narrow space of time ideal for takeoff—when Earth is best aligned for sending a rocket into orbit);
and emergency re-entry paths.
Katherine was the youngest of four siblings. She showed exceptional math skills from a very young age. Her mother was a teacher and her father a hard-working craftsman. They recognized that their daughter needed a high-quality education far beyond the eighth-grade maximum their county public school offered to African-American children at that time. Katherine’s parents were able to get her into a high school for black students on the campus of West Virginia State College—at the age of 10.
After graduating high school at age 14, Katherine enrolled in the college. She took every math course she could. Her college mentor even added math classes to the curriculum, just for Katherine.
Mrs. Johnson was portrayed as the hero of the film Hidden Figures in 2016. She recently celebrated her 100th birthday. She did not attend last Tuesday’s ceremony to dedicate the newly named Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility. Two of her daughters, Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore, were present, however.
Last year, West Virginia State University also honored Johnson. The university unveiled a bronze statue and dedicated a scholarship in her name.
(The ribbon-cutting ceremony at the NASA Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility took place on Tuesday, July 2, 2019. AP photo)