This week Katherine Johnson, a mathematician whose contributions to NASA’s early space missions were instrumental to its success, was honored during a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The organization opened the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in her honor.
Johnson, an African-American woman from West Virginia, and her work would go virtually unrecognized until her story (along with her cohorts) made it to the silver screen in 2016, in Hidden Figures.
In a pre-taped video ahead of the ceremony, Johnson was asked about how she felt about the 37,000 square foot facility created in her honor. “You want my honest answer? I think they’re crazy,” she said, with a big smile and quiet laugh. “I was excited at something new, always liked something new, but give credit to everybody who helped. I didn’t do anything alone but try to go to the root of the question and succeeded there.”
Before NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) there was NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). And little did Johnson, an African-American student armed with a degree in Mathematics and French from West Virginia State College, know that after walking through “NACA’s” doors, she’d make history.
Johnson was hired on as a part of an all-black, all-woman team of “human computers.” The story was brought to life by Taraji P. Henson who played Johnson’s character, Octavia Spencer who played Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe who played Mary Jackson. All three real-life women greatly impacted the early stages of the new NASA.
In 1986 Johnson retired unceremoniously, and the the 99-year-old is in awe about the attention her life has garnered in recent months. “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,” she said about the film and the book according to NASA. “But little did I think it would go this far.”