FAIRMONT, W.Va. — With the recent re-dedication of its Fairmont facility, NASA is teaching young West Virginians that the sky is not the limit.
NASA’s Independent Verification & Validation Facility was renamed Tuesday to honor the career of Greenbrier County native Katherine Johnson.Johnson, born in White Sulphur Springs in 1918, is a renowned NASA mathematician, most well-known for her involvement in the orbital missions of Alan Shepard and John Glenn.
“I think she’s inspiring generations now of young girls that want to go into the STEM fields and see success,” U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito said at Tuesday’s ceremony.
NASA astronaut and retired Air Force Colonel Dr. Yvonne Cagle is only one of the numerous minds Johnson’s 30-plus year career helped to bloom.
Cagle remembers her young self viewing Johnson as a role model. Tuesday, she was able to be a part of the re-dedication.
“And we continue in close conversation today,” she said. “I’m in great friendship with her daughters. She is here in spirit, and I feel privileged to be able to express her voice here today.”
The experience, Cagle said, was truly historic.
“It’s giving voice to the vacuum of space so that people know that not only is there so much out there to learn and discover but that there’s space for all, and for Dr. Katherine Johnson in particular,” she said. “She’s the one who said, ‘You don’t have to just dream, you can do the math too,’ and that’s what really takes it off planet. I’m honored to be here today. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world or the multiverse.”
While it’s hard to pinpoint just one moment of Johnson’s career that first inspired Cagle to pursue a STEM career, she recalls a conversation from the first time the two met.
“One of the first things I wanted to know was how she was able to come up with something so evolutionary in a sense, and she said that she was just doing her job,” she said. “It told me how important it is, no matter how you’re perceived, at the end of the day you make sure you do your job. She said, ‘I was an air checker, and what I did was I just kept checking it until I canceled out all of the errors.’”
Johnson’s daughters, Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore, have seen first-hand the lives their mother has touched.
“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,” Moore said.
The most important message they say their mother conveys is to “follow your passion, work hard, and be prepared whenever the opportunity presents itself.”
“She’s received so many letters, probably close to 1,000 from Johannesburg, where she just got her honorary degree, and from a school in Canada and across the world,” Hylick said. “The young people are just being so encouraged by it. 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.”
Fellow Mountaineer Roy Lee Cooke, an original Rocket Boy, also attended the re-dedication ceremony.
“I was honored with an invitation to the renaming ceremony to make NASA’s IV&V building to be forever named after Katherine Johnson,” Cooke said. “It was a great and moving ceremony.”
Cooke said he had the pleasure of having lunch with Johnson’s daughters, engaging in wonderful conversation.
“I will remember my experiences today, forever. I only wish that I had known Katherine Johnson all those years ago,” he said. “We are truly blessed to have had this great West Virginian to serve our country as she did.”
And the Mountain State continues to develop young minds to succeed in the STEM fields.
Last October, Berkeley County native Victoria Grace became the first female single-engine private pilot to be certified at Fairmont State University.
“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,” Capito said. “I think it’s inspiring for young girls to see either the first pilot that graduated from the program at Fairmont or Katherine Johnson who, a century ago was born but her innate intelligence and determination led her to be a leader in what was then a newly-born administration.”
For these achievements to be made not only by young West Virginians but by young women of West Virginia is even more remarkable, Capito said.
“Women play a large part. They did in the past, they will in the future,” she said. “There’s a lot of younger women here that are associated with robotics teams from across the state. We just want to see more and more of that because we know that West Virginians like Katherine can really be the leaders.”