MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia University Libraries and the West Virginia and Regional History Center will celebrate the life and legacy of NASA mathematician and space pioneer Katherine Johnson Friday afternoon in Morgantown.
The event will be held in the Downtown Library’s Milano Reading Room from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.
West Virginia and Regional History Center Director Lori Hostuttler will introduce the late-Johnson as the newest WVRHC’s Distinguished West Virginians Program and officially open her archives, which include notebooks, photographs, correspondence, memorabilia, awards and other materials.
Johnson’s daughters Katherine Moore and Joylette Hylick said this week watching their mother develop into the respected mathematician seen in the 2016 movie about her life, Hidden Figures.
“When we talk, sometimes I use the phrase ” her steps were ordered,” because every step she took got her closer to the moon,” Moore said during an appearance on WAJR’s ‘Talk of the Town.’
Johnson’s life could be characterized as a series of breakthroughs.
In 1939, she was the first of three African-Americans and the first African-American woman to be selected to participate in the West Virginia University graduate math program. In 1953, she began working at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory.
The major breakthrough was in 1957 with the Russian launch of the Sputnik satellite. Shortly after, she was assigned to the first NASA effort going to space, the Space Task Group. That laid the foundation for her famous interaction with astronaut John Glenn and his mission to orbit the earth, where he told planners,” If she says they’re good (the numbers), then I’m ready to go.”
She retired in 1986 after 33 years of working on projects like the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite program.
“She wasn’t walking around with a halo, she was fun, she played tennis, she played pinochle, she sewed beautifully, and she taught us to sew,” Moore said. “She was very, very involved.”
Hylick was also a mathematician for 30 years with NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia and eventually retired from Lockheed Martin Corporation shared her passion for numbers. Joylette said she was an advanced learner in high school, and when the teacher was sick, she and others would teach the class.
“We would go to the front of the class and teach the class to keep moving,” Hylick said. “So, I always wanted to major in math, but it wasn’t from being pushed by her; it was the fact that I liked it, and I still do; I’m still curious.”
Johnson’s daughters said their mother was always focused on what needed to be done and encouraged them to do better, to do more, and to get involved.
“She was never an angry woman, they kept their grace, and we were able to grow,” Moore said. “My grandfather said, ‘I don’t want you to be bitter; I want you to be better,’ and that followed us all through our lives.”
The daughters said that though the ladies in the group were very smart, they were just average people with a great appreciation for their work.
“These ladies that were hired and shown in the movie and other places mostly knew each other,” Hylick said. “I knew 23 of them myself; they went to our church, were in our schools, or lived in our neighborhood, and they were math majors who excelled in college.”