FAIRMONT, W.Va. — In 1961, Greenbrier County native Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, breaking the boundaries of race and gender during a time of segregation and social tension.
Tuesday, her achievements and legacy were honored as NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation Facility in Fairmont was redesignated as the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility.
“I spearheaded the efforts in the United States Senate to have this IV&V facility named after Katherine Johnson, a brilliant West Virginian who, when she became the subject of the book and the movie, she became ‘hidden’ no longer but just an inspirational figure,” U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito said following the ribbon cutting.
Hidden Figures is a film released in 2016, profiling the African American, female mathematicians who worked for NASA during the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s.
“The more I learned about her, she did it with brains and style and humility, and I think she’s inspiring generations now of young girls that want to go into the STEM fields and see success,” Capito said. “The future of NASA lies in this facility here because it’s all software, and that’s where NASA’s future is, their exploration to the moon and also onto Mars.”
Johnson’s daughters, Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore, were present for the rededication and were overjoyed to witness all of the love and support for their mother’s life and career.
“When I first came up, it just took my breath away because we just never believed that this could happen or would happen,” Hylick said. “We’re just glad that she’s here to know about it, and she does because she’s still very alert, though not very mobile. She wants to come back to West Virginia. We might have to come up here so she can see it too. That would be nice.”
Moore said their mother is often too humble when speaking of her 30-plus year career with NASA, often saying, “I was just doing my job.”
“It’s just an awesome feeling to know that women like mom — and there are lots of them — have been recognized for the work and the quality of work at NASA,” she said.
Now, they hope young girls will follow in their mother’s footsteps, blazing their own trails in the STEM fields.
“Mom says follow your passion, work hard, and be prepared whenever the opportunity presents itself,” Hylick said.
It’s for that reason Johnson penned an autobiography, “Reaching for the Moon,” which was also released Tuesday.
“It says a lot about how she approached all of this without this in mind,” Hylick said. “It was just doing what she loved to do, and when you do that, she says she never worked a day in her life. That’s how much she enjoyed it.”
“When you see the young people up to people that remember her, it’s like she’s reaching back,” Moore added. “These young people are getting it, and that’s what she would want because when she wrote the book she said, ‘Don’t write it for me. Write it for them because I want them to learn something every day.’ That’s how you grow, and to get up there you have to grow, you have to dream and you have to do.”
Since receiving an honorary degree from the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, Johnson has received thousands of letters from young women across the globe.
“The young people are just being so encouraged by it,” Hylick said. “I think that’s the greatest gift is that they get the message, and the book will tell you that it’s simple to do. You don’t need money, you just need to have it in your heart to do a good job.”
Many student teams from the North Central West Virginia region attended the rededication ceremony, and Capito hopes the day will remain firmly planted in their young minds.
“I think anytime you see a pioneering woman, you know that there’s somebody in front of you that’s done this, that’s been successful that’s climbed the obstacles,” she said. “Her enate intelligence and determination led her to be a leader in what was then a newly-born administration. NASA didn’t exist for the first part of her life. That’s remarkable.”