When Jasmine Byrd started her job at NASA about two years ago, she knew nothing about Katherine Johnson, the mathematician and “human computer” whose achievements helped inspire the book and movie “Hidden Figures.”
At that point, the release of the film was still months away. But excitement was building — particularly at Byrd’s new workplace. She’d arrived at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where Johnson spent her entire, 33-year NACA and NASA career.
Soon, Byrd felt a strong connection to a woman she’d never met, nearly 70 years her senior.
“I was just enthralled with her story,” said Byrd, a project coordinator for NASA’s Convergent Aeronautics Solutions Project. Today, she works inside Langley’s Building 1244, the same hangar-side location where Johnson crunched numbers for the Flight Research Division in the 1950s.
“I am thankful for the bridge that Katherine built for someone like myself to easily walk across,” Byrd said. “It helps me to not take this opportunity for granted. I know there were people before me who put in a lot of work and went through a lot of turmoil at times to make sure it was easier for people like myself.”
Fountain of gratitude
As Katherine G. Johnson’s 100th birthday — Aug. 26 — approached, many Langley employees expressed admiration for the woman whose math powered some of America’s first triumphs in human space exploration.
Johnson did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight. At a time when digital computers were relatively new and untested, she famously checked the computer’s math for John Glenn’s historic first orbital spaceflight by an American in February of 1962.
Those are just two bullet points in a brilliant career that stretched from 1953 to 1986.
Her 100th birthday was recognized throughout NASA and around the world. But at Langley, the milestone created an extra measure of pride and joy.
Graduate research assistant Cecilia Stoner, stopped on her way to Langley’s cafeteria, said she admires how Johnson remained humble — even when showered with accolades ranging from the Presidential Medal of Freedom to toys made in her likeness.
Stoner’s lunch companion, Erin Krist, chimed in. “It’s incredible what she managed to do,” said Krist, a summer intern. “She paved the way for women. We couldn’t work here today if that hadn’t happened.”
Langley’s acting chief technologist, Julie Williams-Byrd, echoed that thought.
“She opened the doors for the rest of us,” Williams-Byrd said. “Between her and Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson and all the women who were at Langley at the time. It didn’t matter if they were called computers in skirts. They were here to do a job.
“It’s typical NASA culture, right?” Williams-Byrd said. “We have a mission. Everybody’s going to jump in and do what they can to make that mission successful.”
She also admires Johnson’s devotion to promoting science, technology, engineering and math studies among young people.
“While she was very focused on the technical work and really did great things there, her balance of life and responsibilities to those who would come up behind her, that really resonates with me,” Williams-Byrd said.
A modest mentor
Remarkably, a handful of current Langley employees worked side by side with Johnson. Among them is research mathematician Daniel Giesy, who started at the center in 1977.
“On my first job here, I was teamed with Katherine Johnson,” Giesy said. “She mentored me.”
Johnson showed Giesy the ropes as he and Johnson both provided mathematical and computer programming support for researchers working to find new tools for designing aircraft control systems. They eventually coauthored papers including “Application of Multiobjective Optimization in Aircraft Control Systems Design” from 1979, written with Dan Tabak.
“I would describe her as a good colleague, competent, courteous,” Giesy said. “She had her moments. If you slopped coffee on the way back from the break room, you bloody well better clean up after yourself. You don’t leave it for the janitor staff to work on.
“But she was focused on getting the job done,” Giesy said. “At that point in time, she wasn’t resting on laurels.” Only later would Giesy learn of her historic contributions to early space missions. “She did not brag on herself particularly.”
Regina Johns, who today recruits participants for tests related to crew systems, aviation operations and acoustics, arrived at Langley in 1968 as a high school intern. She returned as a contract employee in 1973 and has worked at Langley ever since.
In those early days, she remembers running into Johnson on campus occasionally. Johnson would often stop and talk, asking about her plans and what she was working on. Johns would eventually get to know Mary Jackson, another Langley researcher central to the “Hidden Figures” story.
“There weren’t a lot of minorities here at that time,” Johns said. “To know that they were engineers and mathematicians, it just gave me hope that, if they can do it, it can be done. If you work hard, you can do it.”
She, like many across the agency, said she’d like to send Johnson a birthday message.
“If I had a chance, I would say, thank you for setting the pathway for young people. Thank you for showing us that we can do anything.”
In terms of lives touched, Johnson’s work with youth stands alongside her impact as a world-class mathematician. Langley’s Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, which opened in September 2017, offers a physical reminder of her contributions.
“The Katherine Johnson building is near where I work, so I think about her often,” said Kimberly Bloom, director of Langley’s Child Development Center. Johnson’s life and accomplishments would have deserved attention even if Hollywood hadn’t come calling, she suggests.
“It’s an important story — how she empowered women of all races,” Bloom said. “And she encouraged kids to learn. She influenced culture here at NASA, but also beyond and made an impact. She certainly is a role model.
“I’d like to thank her for all she’s done not only for NASA but also for this country,” Bloom said.
- Learn more about Katherine G. Johnson's life and contributions to NASA at this link.
NASA Langley Research Center