FAIRMONT, W.Va. – Today would have been Katherine Johnson’s 102nd birthday and it’s being celebrated as a special day at the NASA Independent Verification and Validation Facility that bears her name.
Johnson, a White Sulphur Springs native, was selected as one of three Black students who were part of integrating the Mountain State’s graduate schools. She then became a well-educated and respected mathematician who was an integral player in many of NASA’s early missions including Project Apollo’s Lunar Module with the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module, the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite.
“Katherine Johnson not only completed groundbreaking work at NASA during the space race, but also broke the barriers of race and gender during a critical time in our nation, becoming the first African-American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University,” Sen. Joe Manchin, said.
Even with such a rich history, many folks — even those in her home state — didn’t know Johnson’s story until the 2016 Hollywood film “Hidden Figures” told her story along with those of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.
Johnson passed away this year, but her birthday is recognized as Katherine Johnson Day in West Virginia and the NASA facility ios now named the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility.
“Having the IV&V facility named after Katherine Johnson is an honor because of what she represents. And what she represents is someone that is dedicated to doing their job to the best of their ability, one that does not allow differences to deter them, all while being humble and gracious to others,” Greg Blaney, IV&V program director, said. “I was fortunate to meet her and have a wonderful conversation with her, and she was a sweet person at heart – still humble and gracious – but proud to have worked for NASA.”
While the Katherine Johnson IV&V Facility is less populated this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those who regularly work in the building carry Johnson’s impact beyond those walls, Blaney said.
Johnson’s story serves as a source of motivation for IV&V Program, which assures NASA’s safety and mission critical systems and software will operate reliably and securely.
“Her accomplishments justify her name being on our building, but her attitude and inner person remains an inspiration to all of us. I hope and pray that we all use her name and legacy to encourage all young people to follow in her footsteps,” he said. “I see a lot of Katherine Johnson’s characteristics in the people of West Virginia and those that work at the IV&V Program which makes this such a wonderful place to work.”
Johnson’s accomplishments are ones that, according to U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., give little girls in West Virginia a vision of what they can do, even in the face of adversity.
“When I talk about female role models in my West Virginia Girls Rise Up program, Katherine Johnson is first among equals. Katherine’s life was dedicated in service to others. As an African-American woman, Katherine broke barriers not only within NASA but also as a leader in STEM fields,” Capito said. “More importantly, Katherine proved to us that no obstacle is too high if you work hard and believe in your goals.”
Katherine Johnson Day, according to Manchin, is more than just a day on the calendar. It’s a chance to appreciate not only Johnson’s individual accomplishments, but also how they inspire women, West Virginians and people of color.
“Because of the accomplishments of intellectual leaders like Katherine Johnson, more young women have, and will, blaze their own trails in science, technology, engineering and math fields, and will continue to make our state and entire nation proud,” Manchin said. “I am lucky to have met such an incredible woman who made an unmistakable impact on our American legacy. A day named in her honor is a wonderful way to celebrate Katherine’s contributions to the Mountain State and America.”
NASA’s IV&V Program and West Virginia still see the impacts of Johnson’s work today, and Capito. says West Virginians everywhere should be proud to lift up Johnson’s legacy today.
“These past few weeks have brought us more exciting missions into space. From the historic and successful Dragon mission to another spacecraft headed to Mars, Katherine Johnson’s legacy lives on,” she said. “On Katherine Johnson Day and every day, let’s celebrate Katherine’s hard work that is no longer hidden by the shadows of the men she put on the moon while anticipating the women who will go there next.”