NASA Lan­g­ley’s Kather­ine John­son Com­pu­ta­tional Re­search Fa­cil­ity Opens

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When she heard that NASA’s Lan­g­ley Re­search Cen­ter in Hamp­ton, Vir­ginia, would name its new­est build­ing after her, Kather­ine John­son re­sponded the only way she could – with sur­prise.

“You want my hon­est an­swer? I think they’re crazy,” the 99-year-old John­son, of “Hid­den Fig­ures” fame, said with a laugh.

The Kather­ine G. John­son Com­pu­ta­tional Re­search Fa­cil­ity, or CRF, was ded­i­cated Sept. 22 with a rib­bon-cut­ting cer­e­mony at­tended by fam­ily and friends of John­son and her fel­low “hu­man com­put­ers,” stu­dents from Black Girls Code and the 21st Cen­tury Com­mu­nity Learn­ing Cen­ters pro­gram, and spe­cial guests from across Vir­ginia.

“You have been a trail­blazer,” Vir­ginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said dur­ing the cer­e­mony. “When I think of Vir­ginia and the his­tory of what we’ve gone through … you’re at the top of that list.”

John­son held a fas­ci­na­tion with num­bers as a girl grow­ing up in West Vir­ginia. Even­tu­ally, she trans­lated that love into us­ing her math skills to help ad­vance the na­tion’s space pro­gram in the 1960s. “I like the stars, and the sto­ries we were telling, and it was a joy to con­trib­ute to the lit­er­a­ture that was go­ing to come out,” said John­son, the cen­tral char­ac­ter in the book and movie “Hid­den Fig­ures.” “But lit­tle did I think it would go this far.”

“We’re here to honor the le­gacy of one of the most ad­mired and in­spi­ra­tional peo­ple ever as­so­ci­ated with NASA,” said Lan­g­ley Direc­tor David Bowles. “I can’t imag­ine a bet­ter trib­ute to Mrs. John­son’s char­ac­ter and ac­com­plish­ments than this build­ing that will bear her name.”

State of the art

The CRF is a state-ofthe-art fa­cil­ity that will en­able in­no­va­tive re­search and devel­op­ment sup­port­ing NASA’s mis­sions. It is the third build­ing in Lan­g­ley’s 20-year re­vi­tal­iza­tion plan.

“I al­ways like some­thing new,” John­son said of the fa­cil­ity. “It gives credit to ev­ery­body who helped.”

The $23-mil­lion, 37,000- square-foot (3,437 square-me­ter) struc­ture is con­sol­i­dat­ing f our Lan­g­ley data cen­ters. The build­ing in­cor­po­rates en­ergy- sav­ing fea­tures that are ex­pected to be 33 per­cent more ef­fi­cient than if those fea­tures had not been in­cluded. The sig­nif­i­cance of the fa­cil­ity is that it ad­vances Lan­g­ley’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties in mod­el­ing and sim­u­la­tion, big data and anal­y­sis.

Pow­er­ful com­put­ers like those in the CRF are ca­pa­ble of ever more com­plex anal­y­sis and sim­u­la­tion, in some cases re­plac­ing but also val­i­dat­ing and com­pli­ment­ing the re­search done in NASA’s labs and wind tun­nels. The CRF also houses an of­fice area for re­searchers to do their work.

“We know that these are the tools that will help shape the world of the fu­ture,” Bowles said. “We’ll do more cal­cu­la­tions than ever, and we’ll do them faster, more ef­fi­ciently and with greater re­li­a­bil­ity.”

John­son was a “hu­man com­puter” at Lan­g­ley who cal­cu­lated tra­jec­to­ries for Amer­ica’s first space­flights. She worked at Lan­g­ley from 1953 un­til re­tir­ing in 1986.

Her con­tri­bu­tions and those of other NASA African American hu­man com­put­ers are chron­i­cled in “Hid­den Fig­ures,” based on au­thor Mar­got Lee Shet­terly’s book of the same name.

After John­son’s story be­gan to emerge, she was awarded the Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom, the na­tion’s high­est civil­ian honor, by then-Pres­i­dent Barack Obama at the White House in 2015.

The back­story

In 1962, as NASA pre­pared for the or­bital mis­sion of John Glenn, John­son was called on to do the work that she would be­come most known for. The com­plex­ity of the or­bital flight had re­quired the con­struc­tion of a world­wide com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work, link­ing tracking sta­tions around the world to com­put­ers in Wash­ing­ton, Cape Canaveral, Florida and Ber­muda.

The com­put­ers had been pro­grammed with or­bital equa­tions that would con­trol the tra­jec­tory of the cap­sule in Glenn’s Friend­ship 7 mis­sion, from blast off to splash­down, but the astro­nauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the elec­tronic cal­cu­lat­ing ma­chines, which were prone to hic­cups and black­outs.

As a part of the pre­flight check­list, Glenn asked en­gi­neers to “get the girl” (John­son) to run the same num­bers through the same equa­tions that had been pro­grammed into the com­puter, but by hand, on her desk­top me­chan­i­cal cal­cu­lat­ing ma­chine. “If she says they’re good,” John­son re­mem­bers Glenn say­ing, “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. Break­ing down bar­ri­ers

“Thank good­ness for the book and movie to come out so peo­ple got to un­der­stand what this woman meant to our coun­try,” Gov. McAuliffe said. “She re­ally broke down the bar­ri­ers.” Shet­terly, the cer­e­mony’s key­note speaker, praised John­son and fel­low hu­man com­put­ers Mary Jack­son and Dorothy Vaughan as be­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary by just do­ing their jobs.

“We are liv­ing in a present that they willed into ex­is­tence with their pen­cils, their slide rules, their me­chan­i­cal cal­cu­lat­ing ma­chines and, of course, their bril­liant minds,” Shet­terly said.

Shet­terly said the path to the fu­ture is rarely pre­dictable, smooth or direct – and John­son’s was no ex­cep­tion.

“At ev­ery fork, her talent, her hard work and her char­ac­ter pulled her to­ward her des­tiny,” she said. “At ev­ery turn, she made a choice to be­come the pro­tag­o­nist in her own story and then of ours.”

Shet­terly added that John­son’s story is one of a thirst for knowl­edge and a cel­e­bra­tion of team­work.

“Telling your story has been an honor,” she said. “Your work changed our his­tory and your his­tory has changed our fu­ture.”

John­son, who re­ceived four stand­ing ova­tions at the cer­e­mony, hap­pily re­called her time at Lan­g­ley, say­ing that her job was to just an­swer ques­tions to the best of her abil­ity at all times, whether she got them cor­rect or not.

“I didn’t do any­thing alone but to try to get to the root of the ques­tion – and suc­ceeded there,” she said.


Kather­ine John­son,99 years old,in front of the new NASA com­pu­ta­tion re­search fa­cil­ity named in her honor.

Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jack­son


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