New NASA Research Facility In Virginia Named After 99-Year-Old ‘Human Computer’ Katherine Johnson


NASA's Langley Research Center has named its new Computational Research Facility in Hampton, Virginia after Katherine Johnson, one of the space agency's "human computers" who helped plan the mission that saw an American astronaut orbit Earth for the first time in 1962.

Along with Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, Johnson was the primary subject of 2016's Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, which told the story of three black female mathematicians working at NASA during the space race. Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson were crucial in shattering segregation norms inside the space agency at the time.

The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, run by NASA's Langley Research Center, is a state-of-the-art facility which cost $23 million to build. It will consolidate four data centers, in accordance with Langley's 20-year revitalization plan.

"I can't imagine a better tribute to Mrs. Johnson's character and accomplishments than this building that will bear her name," said David Bowles, Langley's director, in a statement.

When Johnson first heard about NASA's plans to have a building named after her, she couldn't believe it.

"You want my honest answer? I think they're crazy," the 99-year-old mathematician said.

Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility

The ribbon-cutting occurred in Sept. 22, with Johnson's family and friends, her fellow "human computers," students from Black Girls Code and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, and Governor Terry McAuliffe, all in attendance.

The facility aims to advance Langley's capabilities in aspects such as modeling, simulation, big data, and analysis. Spanning 37,000 square feet, the facility will be home to powerful computers that will, in some cases, validate and complement the research NASA performs in its labs and wind tunnels.

"We know that these are the tools that will help shape the world of the future," Bowles said. "We'll do more calculations that ever, and we'll do them faster, more efficiently and with greater reliability."

Johnson worked at Langley from 1953 until her retirement in 1986. During her stint, she calculated trajectories — on paper — for the United States's first space travels, at a time when NASA was less reliant on computers.

NASA And The Friendship 7 Mission

Perhaps Johnson's most notable work was the first orbital space flight, which involved complex calculations. At the time, computers performed orbital equations that would dictate the trajectory of astronaut John Glenn's Friendship 7 mission, but the astronauts were skeptical of the technology, which back then were prone to mistakes.

Glenn asked NASA engineers to "get the girl," to confirm that the calculations were correct. She did it manually, with the help of a calculating machine.

"If she says they're good," Glenn apparently said, "then I'm ready to go."

Of course, Glenn's orbital flight turned out to be successful, helping the United States have a leg up in the space race.

Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote the book in which Hidden Figures was based, told Johnson her "work changed our history and your history has changed our future."

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