NASA Renames Building After ‘Human Computer’ Katherine Johnson

A not-so hidden figure
Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson as she received the Medal of Freedom. NASA/Bill Ingalls

Today is the 55th anniversary of Alan Shephard’s trip into space, a first for Americans. But he wouldn’t have gotten very far if it wasn’t for Katherine Johnson, a mathematician at NASA who calculated the trajectory of his journey.

So today, at 2 pm Eastern, NASA is giving her name to a new building: the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in Langley, Virginia, where Johnson spent much of her NASA career. She was among the first African-American women to work at NASA and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

In addition to calculating the trajectory of Shephard’s flight, she worked as what NASA termed a ‘human computer’ on countless other missions, performing the calculations necessary for successful missions during the Mercury, Apollo, and Shuttle programs. She even helped develop the emergency star charts that helped save the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts.

According to a NASA biography of Johnson, her mathematical skills were so respected that “John Glenn requested that she personally recheck the calculations made by the new electronic computers before his flight aboard Friendship 7 – the mission on which he became the first American to orbit the Earth.”

Johnson is now 97, and accolades to her remarkable life are piling up. Last November, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama, and next year, her story will be shown on the big screen in the film Hidden Figures. She will be portrayed by Taraji P. Henson.