In 2016, the book and movie Hidden Figures made its mark on the world. The story follows Katherine Johnson, an incredibly intelligent and motivated mathematician, and her journey from the “Computer Pool” of NASA to the woman whose calculations made for groundbreaking space missions.
Thanks to her perseverance and the success of Hidden Figures, brilliant mathematician Katherine Johnson got a NASA facility named in her honor. Now the NASA facility is named the Katherine Johnson IV&V Facility – an incredible recognition.
Previously named The Independent Verification and Validation Facility (IV&V), the IV&V program ensures the safety and success of NASA’s high-profile missions. The history of “hidden figure” Katherine Johnson now has a dedicated spot within NASA and the recognition it deserves.
History of Katherine Johnson
Born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Katherine Johnson was blessed with motivating parents. In an area where education for Black people ended in eighth grade – her parents saw her mathematical talent and sent her to a high school campus. By 14 she graduated high school and by 18 she finished off her collegiate education at West Virginia State.
With goals to become a research mathematician, and after Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory finally allowed for the recruitment of Black people, NASA inserted Johnson into the Computer Pool.
In the 1950s, before computers were small enough to fit on our laps – and before they were trusted- agencies and governmental programs like NASA utilized human mathematicians, whom they called “computers.” The smallest of errors could send million-dollar shuttles off floating into space – a costly mistake they could not afford to make.
That is where the Computer Pool came into play with the unbelievably complex and hand-written calculations of Black female employees. Johnson and the other talented women of the Computer Pool are the ones who figured out these calculations.
Johnson’s Relentless Desire
After a few weeks in a segregated wing, Johnson’s talent transferred her to the NASA’s Flight Research Division. With her gumption and relentless desire to push into meetings not meant for women – let alone a Black woman – Johnson ended up aiding in the success of missions like John Glenn’s 1962 mission; it was on this mission he became the first American to orbit Earth.
None of these firsts would be possible without Johnson. She dealt with immense difficulties, from racism around every corner to misogynistic men keeping her from important meetings. Due to these obstacles, her contributions went unnoticed for far too long. However, with the help of Hidden Figures – released around 50 years after Johnson’s first big helpful moment – shined a light on the work done and the challenges faced by Johnson and the other remarkable women she worked with.
Now, years later, Hidden Figures has brought Katherine Johnson the recognition she deserves. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said that he and NASA are thrilled to honor her in this way “as she is a true American icon who overcame incredible obstacles and inspired so many.”
NASA’s program director, Gregory Blaney, furthers that sentiment by stating that “it’s an honor the NASA IV&V Program’s primary facility now carries Katherine Johnson’s name […] It’s a way for us to recognize Katherine’s career and contributions not just during Black History month, but every day, every year.”