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Katherine Johnson building opens at NASA Langley Research Center

Posted at 3:23 PM, Sep 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-22 16:42:48-04

HAMPTON, Va. — The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at NASA Langley Research Center’s in Hampton officially opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday. The building will “support innovative research and development across the agency’s missions,” according to NASA.

Johnson was the NASA mathematician who calculated the trajectory for America’s first trip to space with Alan Shepherd’s 1961 mission.  She also confirmed, by hand, the launch calculations for John Glenn, the first American astronaut to circle the globe in 1962.

“It was a piece of cake,” Johnson joked about her legendary math skills during her time at NASA in Hampton.

Johnson, who was the central character in the book and movie “Hidden Figures,” won the 2015 National Medal of Freedom.

President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to NASA mathematician and physicist Katherine Johnson at the White House in Washington, DC, on November 24, 2015. (PHOTO: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Johnson was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where education for black people ended in eighth grade. Recognizing their youngest daughter’s talent for math, her parents sent her to high school on the campus of West Virginia State Institute, a black college 100 miles away. It paid off and she graduated from high school at 14 and graduated from West Virginia State in 1937 at 18.

Like many women of her time she became a teacher — but her sights were set on becoming a research mathematician. When she learned of a job opening at Langley for black women with math degrees she and her husband moved their three daughters to Newport News, Virginia.

She started in in the segregated West Area Computing Group in 1953 under Dorothy Vaughan. After just two weeks, she transferred to the facility’s Flight Research Division. She worked there for years until the Soviet satellite Sputnik kicked off the space race between the US and the USSR, spurring the transformation of NACA into America’s space agency, NASA.

She pushed her way into briefings traditionally attended only by men and secured a place in the inner circle of the American Space Program. She worked on trajectories for Shepard’s Mercury flight, America’s first manned spaceflight, and earned a measure of fame as “the girl” — as female mathematicians were called — who double-checked the output for Glenn’s spaceflight. Her work helped map the moon’s surface ahead of the 1969 landing and played a role in the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts.

She retired in 1989 and lives in Virginia.

CNN Wire contributed to this report.