NASA names new research facility after Katherine Johnson

HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — A Hampton woman who played a key role in America’s first missions in space has received a special dedication in her name.

NASA opened the new Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility Friday afternoon at its Langley Research Center in Hampton.

Katherine Johnson, 99, is famous for her work as a “human computer.” Her complex work at NASA in the 1960’s changed America’s relationship with space. Johnson was invaluable to the space program.

She took a tour of the facility prior to a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Astronaut Dr. Yvonne Darlene Cagle was there to greet her.

“She is the bar that I’m trying to scale. In comparison, space is easier because she did everything I’m trying to reach for, but she did it here in gravity,” Cagle said.

Katherine G. Johnson being honored at the Virginia Air and Space Center. Credit: NASA

Governor Terry McAuliffe called Johnson a “trailblazer.”

“Thank goodness for the movie and the book that actually came out and people got to understand what this woman meant to our country. I mean, she really broke down the barriers,” he said.

Johnson’s achievements and those of other NASA African-American human computers are featured in the Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures,” and documented in the book of the same name written by Margot Lee Shetterly. In her keynote address Friday, Shetterly said the women laid the foundation for the new facility.

“We are living in a present that they willed into existence with their pencils, their slide rules, their mechanical calculating machines, and of course, their brilliant minds,” Shetterly said.

The computational research facility will be used for studying challenges like turbulence and the entry into another atmosphere, like Mars.

To those who will carry on her work in the new building, Johnson had this advice:

“Do your best, but like it. Like what you’re doing, then you will do your best. If you don’t like it, shame on you,” Johnson said.

Hampton’s Katherine Johnson is honored at Academy Awards

In 1961, Johnson helped calculate trajectories for Alan Shepard’s journey in space — the first in American history. The next year, she gave the “go-ahead” to propel John Glenn into successful orbit.

President Barack Obama awarded the retired mathematician with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom,  in 2015. Obama called her a pioneer who broke barrier of race and gender in a time when segregation prevented job opportunities for African Americans.

Gallery: Research Facility Named After Katherine Johnson

Johnson earned a B.S. degree in mathematics and French from West Virginia State College. In 1999, that university named Johnson “Outstanding Alumnus of the Year.”

African American History Month: Katherine Johnson

She had three daughters with her late husband James Goble. All of the daughters are graduates of Hampton University. Johnson is currently married to Lt. Col. USA (RET) James Johnson. Johnson has six grandchildren, three of whom graduated from Hampton University and 11 great-grandchildren.

Johnson worked at Langley from 1953 until she retired in 1986.

NASA says the center is a state-of-the-art lab for innovative research and development supporting NASA’s exploration missions.

The $23 million, 37,000 square foot facility will consolidate five Langley data centers and more than 30 server rooms. It will also be used to boost the agency’s efforts in modeling and simulation, big data and analysis.