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NASA Honors Real-Life “Hidden Figure”

Technology's recognition of Katherine Johnson, the "human computer" who provided crucial aid in America's Space Race, has been long overdue. Given her recent fame from the movie, Hidden Figures, and having received the Presidential Medal of Freedom this past year, Johnson has been given yet another honor, a dedication to her own NASA research facility.
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On September 22nd, Katherine Johnson, the mathematician whose calculations helped send the first Americans to the moon and into orbit, cut the ribbon of her namesake research facility, which opened at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.

Johnson became widely known for her huge role as one of NASA’s “human computers” through last year’s film, Hidden Figures. The film was based on her and other women’s significant work at NASA. Johnson and others were responsible for calculating trajectories for early crewed spaceflights.

Johnson earned a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. The keynote speaker for the research facility opening ceremony was Margot Shetterly, Katherine’s biographer.

“By now, most of us know the details of the work that Katherine Johnson did here at NASA,” Shetterly said. “We know about the calculations she provided for Alan Shepard’s flight [the first American to fly in space], the calculations she provided for John Glenn’s pioneering orbital flight. We know about the math that she contributed to the parking orbit calculations for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.”

“Today,” Shetterly continued, “all of those things seem inevitable, but without her past, full of diverging roads and choices that made all the difference, we would not be standing on the brink of this future.”

The brand new facility is 37,000 square feet. Approximately 1,200 servers will move there within the next few months, NASA officials noted.

David Bowles, Langley’s director, said that the new building “sets the stage for our continuing digital transformation in an exciting new era of sophisticated modeling and simulation. We know that these are the tools that will help us shape the world of the future, just as Langley’s wind tunnels have helped shape nearly every aircraft that’s in the skies flying today.”

Bowles continued, saying, “what we’re really doing is taking lessons learned when Katherine Johnson and her fellow human computers calculated spacecraft trajectories with paper, pencil and adding machines, and applying them to today’s missions. With this new facility, we will continue to advance the same techniques that she used to such spectacular effect, and I can’t imagine a better tribute to Mrs. Johnson’s character and accomplishments than this building that will bear her name.”

Katherine Johnson, now 99-years-old, attended the event and helped cut the ribbon of the new Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. The audience also watched a video of an interview that  Johnson had done earlier.

“The main thing is, I liked what I was doing,” Johnson said in the video. “I liked work. I liked the stars and the stories we were telling. And it was a joy to contribute to the literature that was going to be coming out. But little did I think that it would go this far.”

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