Hidden Figure no more: NASA honors pioneering math genius Katherine Johnson
Widespread recognition came late for Katherine Johnson, one of the mathematicians featured in the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures.’’
Now the accolades are pouring in.
Johnson, who along with other African-American women had to overcome racial and gender discrimination to rise through the ranks of NASA in the 1950s and ’60s, has received another major distinction with the naming of one of the agency’s buildings in her honor.
The Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility in Fairmont, West Virginia – her native state – houses programs that help safeguard NASA’s highest-profile missions by making sure software operates properly, according to the agency’s website.
The building was renamed over the weekend at the urging of a congressional bill signed into law by President Donald Trump in December.
“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. “It’s a fitting tribute to name the facility that carries on her legacy of mission-critical computations in her honor.”
The story of the barrier-breaking achievements by Johnson and fellow black mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson was captured in the 2016 book "Hidden Figures" and the Academy Award-nominated movie of the same name.
At a time of widespread segregation and male dominance, when black employees had to eat in separate facilities and use different bathrooms than their white peers, Johnson and her colleagues were referred to as “colored computers’’ or “computers in skirts.’’
Though often overlooked, their skills were vital to NASA’s success.
During a 35-year career at NASA and its predecessor, NACA, Johnson provided calculations for several space missions, most notably verifying the results churned out by electronic computers to calculate the orbit for John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission.
Glenn’s request to “get the girl to check the numbers,’’ made before he became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962, provides one of the movie’s highlights.
The year before, Johnson had calculated the trajectory of Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission. In later years, she contributed to Apollo missions, helped the agency transition to electronic computers and went on to win five NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement awards.
In 2015, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Barack Obama. Two years later, NASA dedicated a computational research facility in her honor. In December, she was inducted into NASA’s Paul E. Garber First Flight Society Shrine.
Johnson has been able to take in the laurels thanks to her remarkable longevity. She turned 100 in August, at which time NASA paid tribute to her.
“With slide rules and pencils, Katherine, a legendary NASA mathematician – and the other human computers who worked at the agency – helped our nation’s space program get off the ground, but it was their confidence, bravery and commitment to excellence that broke down racial and social barriers that continue to inspire to this day,’’ the agency said in a website posting.