Without Katherine Johnson, it’s fair to say the astronaut John Glenn wouldn’t have been the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962.
Which is why Johnson, dubbed the ‘human computer’ after she helped to plan the successful space mission, has had a NASA centre dedicated to her.
Until the release of hit film Hidden Figures earlier this year, Johnson’s achievements weren’t well-known. The film saw the (very) long overdue portrayal of the historic events in which Johnson and other African-American women in the US space programme double-checked computer calculations and carried out complex mathematics.
At the time, Johnson and other African-American NASA workers were subjected to ‘coloured only’ sections and their achievements were grossly under-appreciated. The Civil Rights Act, which ended such segregation, wasn’t passed until 1964.
Not only did Johnson and the other incredible women have to deal with racism on a daily basis, but they also had to overcome the sexist stereotype that women couldn’t match the mathematical skills of men.
The film includes the line Johnson remembers Glenn saying to her before he took flight: “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”
Glenn’s flight was a success, and marked a turning point in the competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in space.
The film was the highest grossing Best Picture nominee at the Oscars, according to the Independent.
Asked what she thought of having a research facility named after her, 99-year-old Johnson said: “You want my honest answer? I think they’re crazy.
"I was excited at something new, always liked something new, but give credit to everybody who helped. I didn’t do anything alone but try to go to the root of the question and succeeded there."
The $23 million, 37,000-square-foot structure - where research and development for future missions will take place – will feature over 30 rooms.
“You have been a trailblazer. When I think of Virginia and the history of what we’ve gone through ... you’re at the top of that list,” said, Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia, in a press release.
“Thank goodness for the book and movie to come out, so people got to understand what this woman meant to our country.
“She really broke down the barriers.”
And David Bowles, director of Nasa’s Langley Research Centre, added: “We’re here to honour the legacy of one of the most admired and inspirational people ever associated with Nasa.
“I can’t imagine a better tribute to Mrs Johnson’s character and accomplishments than this building that will bear her name.”
Images: Rex Features