Man’s first step on the Moon has always been one of the most celebrated event in history. We recognized Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind,” and conveniently forgot who or what made it possible. What’s important is, we got there.
In February 23, NASA announced what appears to be an act of giving credit where it’s due. After what looked like forever, NASA is finally awarding a long overdue recognition to one of America’s most important space pioneers – Katherine Johnson – by renaming the Independent Verification and Validation Facility (IV&V) in West Virginia to the Katherine Johnson IV&V Facility.
Katherine Johnson is an African-American mathematician who crunched the numbers for man’s historic Moon landing in 1969. She was NASA’s “human computer” who hailed from White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in 1918 – a time when going to the Moon was a fantasy and the thought of a woman making it happen was downright preposterous.
But in 1969, Katherine Johnson made it possible. She was first hired for the moon project at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics in Hampton, Virginia, which would later be known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
“The women did what they were told to do,” she told NASA. “They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.”
Armed with her unquenchable curiosity and an intense interest in mathematics and science, she made hand calculations for Alan Shepard’s 1961 space trip and then contributed to the eventual success of the moon landing in 1969. Her intense curiosity and brilliance with numbers lead her to 33 years of service which concluded upon her retirement from NASA in 1986. During her career, she received many prestigious awards, including: the NASA Lunar Orbiter Award and three NASA Special Achievement awards.
In 2015 she also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was presented to her by her “boo,” Barack Obama.
West Virginia State also honored Johnson by erecting a statue of her on campus and creating a scholarship in her name.
Along with her NASA colleagues, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine was also profiled in the 2016 Oscar-nominated drama, “Hidden Figures.”
On August 27, 2018, NASA celebrated Johnson’s 100th birthday on Twitter:
When asked the secret to her longevity, Johnson said, “I’m just lucky — the Lord likes me,” she said. “And I like him.”