State Heroes and Legends: the “hidden” grad behind the space race

By Cierra Hammond
YJ Staff Writer

She is hidden no more.

The star of the acclaimed film Hidden Figures now has a NASA building named for the legendary State graduate, NASA’s new Computations building in Hampton, Va. An esteemed mathematician, some say genius, 99-year-old Katherine G. Johnson has done more than her fair share to inspire people and astronauts.

At 14 years old, Johnson was accepted into West Virginia State College, now West Virginia State University. She graduated from college at 18 and would later go on to become the first black woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University. In 1953, she was offered a job at NACA, later known as NASA, to work in their Guidance and Navigation Department. After working for NACA for five years, she was reassigned to the Guidance and Control Division of Langley’s Flight Research Division.

In this division, she worked alongside a team made up of white male engineers, the main story line of ͞Hidden Figures. Johnson calculated launch windows, trajectories and emergency return paths for many missions. Project Mercury, missions for John Glenn and Alan Shepard, Apollo 11, as well as plans for a mission to Mars. In pre-computer times, the most well-known calculations were for Alan Shepard and his mission as the first American in space.

When she heard that NASA’s Langley Research would name its newest building after her, Johnson responded the only way she could – with surprise. ͞You want my honest answer? I think they’re crazy,” said one of WVSU’s greatest graduates.

The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, or CRF, was dedicated this fall attended by family and friends and her fellow ͞human computers, students from Black Girls Code and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, and special guests from across Virginia. Eventually, she translated that love into using her math skills to help advance the nation’s space program in the 1960s.

I think they’re crazy.” — Katherine Johnson on NASA naming a building for her.

͞”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,” said Johnson, the central character in the book and movie Hidden Figures. “But little did I think it would go this far.”

She worked at Langley from 1953 until retiring in 1986. Her contributions and those of other NASA African-American human computers are chronicled in Hidden Figures, based on author Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name. After Johnson’s story began to emerge, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’ s highest civilian honor, by then President Barack Obama at the White House in 2015. (NASA contributed part of this story.)

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