FAIRMONT — NASA had a countdown Tuesday, but it wasn’t to blast off a rocket.
Rather, the countdown was for a ribbon cutting at a redesignation ceremony for the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification & Validation Facility Tuesday in Fairmont.
The redesignation of the facility is in honor of Johnson, who was born in 1918 White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. and made many contributions to NASA.
According to NASA, “Johnson became part of the team to send mankind to the moon, and she began her work on calculating the trajectory for America’s first space trip with Alan Shepard’s 1961 mission, an early step toward a moon landing. She went on to do the calculations for the first actual moon landing in 1969.”
According to NASA, she is most famous for verifying the results of electronic computers to calculate the orbit for John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, and she provided calculations for the space agency during her career. These included several Apollo missions. In 2015, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Johnson’s two daughters, Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore, both attended the ribbon cutting and a reception held afterwards. They were thrilled that the facility is named in honor of their mother, who lives in Hampton, Va. and will be 101 years old on Aug. 26.
“It’s quite an honor,” Hylick said. “It’s humbling. It’s exciting.”
Getting a bit emotional, she said, “When I first saw it, I just couldn’t talk. It’s just good to know her colleagues are congratulating her for the things she has done. She still says, ‘I was just doing my job, so I don’t know what all the fuss is about.’ So, I said, ‘but mom, all of these people are doing all of these things, you must have done something special,’ and she said, ‘well, I guess so.’”
Hylick said her mother would have liked to have attended Tuesday’s event, but wasn’t able because traveling is difficult for her now.
Hylick said her mother enjoyed the movie that was made about her, the 2017 film “Hidden Figures.”
“She liked it,” Hylick said. “She appreciated the work that the people did.”
She said her mother doesn’t like to stand out, and is a team player.
“She’s always thinking of other people,” she said.
Moore said it was “awesome,” “overwhelming” and “fantastic” that her mother has been honored.
“It’s been a learning experience,” Moore said. “We’re meeting so many amazing people.”
She and her sister had a copy of their mother’s autobiography, “Reaching for the Moon,” which they said just came out Tuesday. During guest speakers’ remarks following the ribbon cutting and reception, Gregory Blaney, IV&V program director, offered some uplifting words.
“What an exciting event to just celebrate the renaming of our facility after the inspiring Katherine Johnson,” he said.
Blaney said they were privileged to have Johnson’s daughters attend, which was received by applause.
“Please convey to your mother how proud we are to have her name on our building, and we can only hope to live up to her legacy,” Blaney said, speaking to her Hylick and Moore.
“Fifty years ago or so, Katherine Johnson was calculating numbers to send men to the moon,” he said. “Fifty years later, the IV&V program is checking the software that will take men and women back to the moon for a sustaining mission and then onto Mars. So, we appreciate and just love having her inspiring name on our building. She overcame barriers by her hard work, her attitude, her brilliance.”
Noting that Johnson came from White Sulphur Springs, another speaker, former astronaut and NASA executive Fred Gregory said, “This is kind of like a homecoming for Katherine Johnson.”
“And so I just want to welcome her, as she should be honored, back to West Virginia, where she will be a part of the success of the moon and Mars and beyond.”
He thanked Johnson’s daughters for attending.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine also shared his remarks.
“Today is a day of celebration,” he said. “We are celebrating barriers that have been broken, not just the barriers of gravity, but, in fact, the barriers of injustice and the barriers of segregation. And in order to achieve what this nation needed to achieve in the 1960’s and in the 1970’s, those barriers of injustice had to be broken, just as the barriers of gravity. And Katherine Johnson was there in those days, and she made it happen for our whole country, knowing that there was a new day coming, a day of freedom, which, of course, Apollo is a big part of.”
Bridenstine said it was a thrill and honor to be at the event with Johnson’s daughters.
“This is a movement that your mother has started,” he said. “Certainly, there is history that has been made, and of course, the ‘Hidden Figures’ are no longer hidden. They are now wide open. Everybody understands their contributions, and they are inspiring a new generation, and for that, we are all so, so so very grateful, and it’s a thrill to be here with you.”
Noting Johnson’s role in calculating the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 Mission in 1961, Bridenstine said Johnson was “one of the human calculators.”
He said that in order to win the “Race for Space,” with the ultimate goal of a moon landing, America had to first get into space.
“And we had to calculate the trajectories of the first person to ever leave Earth on a space mission, Alan Shepard, in a mission called Freedom 7. And Katherine Johnson was one of the human calculators. In fact, she was a human calculator that did the calculations for Freedom 7 so that Alan Shepard could, in fact, get into space as the first American.”
He noted how John Glenn relied on Johnson.
“And John Glenn was destined to go around the Earth in an orbit, and he said, ‘wait a second, I am not going to trust my life to that (IBM) machine. He asked, by name, for Katherine Johnson to do the calculations for the first American to orbit the earth. And Katherine Johnson did the calculation, and it happened to match what the IBM machine came up with, and from that, John Glenn said, ‘OK, now it’s good, I’m ready to go.’ So, these ‘Hidden Figures’ that did these calculations and hidden no more. And yet we’re inspiring another generation.”
U.S. Rep. David B. McKinley, R-W.Va., and U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who provided the legislative support to name the facility in Johnson’s honor, also applauded Johnson.
Capito said it was an honor for her, a female leader, to honor another female leader.
McKinley said the honors bestowed to Johnson, who he called a “trailblazer," were overdue.
“And it’s about time she got that recognition,” he said.
Eric Hrin can be reached at 304-367-2549.