INSTITUTE, W.Va. (AP) — Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician whose calculations helped astronauts return to Earth, is being honored at her alma mater West Virginia State University with a bronze statue and a scholarship in her name. West Virginia State says a dedication ceremony is planned for Aug. 25, the day before Johnson’s 100th birthday.
Long before the digital era, Johnson worked as a human “computer” at the agency that became NASA, working in relative obscurity as an African-American woman. Her contributions were later recognized in the “Hidden Figures” movie, with actress Taraji P. Henson playing her role.
West Virginia State hopes to endow the scholarship at $100,000, awarding money to students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math, targeting people who are underrepresented in those fields.
When I was growing up, in segregated South Carolina, African-American role models in national life were few and far between. Later, when my fellow flight students and I, in training at the Naval Air Station in Meridian, Mississippi, clustered around a small television watching the Apollo 11 moon landing, little did I know that one of the key figures responsible for its success was an unassuming black woman from West Virginia: Katherine Johnson.
Hidden Figures is both an upcoming book and an upcoming movie about her incredible life, and, as the title suggests, Katherine worked behind the scenes but with incredible impact. When Katherine began at NASA, she and her cohorts were known as “human computers,” and if you talk to her or read quotes from throughout her long career, you can see that precision, that humming mind, constantly at work. She is a human computer, indeed, but one with a quick wit, a quiet ambition, and a confidence in her talents that rose above her era and her surroundings.
“In math, you’re either right or you’re wrong,” she said. Her succinct words belie a deep curiosity about the world and dedication to her discipline, despite the prejudices of her time against both women and African-Americans. It was her duty to calculate orbital trajectories and flight times relative to the position of the moon—you know, simple things. In this day and age, when we increasingly rely on technology, it’s hard to believe that John Glenn himself tasked Katherine to double-check the results of the computer calculations before his historic orbital flight, the first by an American. The numbers of the human computer and the machine matched.