The White Sulphur Springs Public Library is honoring the life and contributions of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who celebrates her 100th birthday on Aug. 26, with a special exhibit to run Aug. 27-Sept. 1.
The exhibit will be displayed in the Joshua McKinley Coleman Community Room. The community room was dedicated last year to the memory of Johnson’s father, who worked as a custodian at the former library building. While her mother Joylette’s training as a teacher may have helped fuel Johnson’s educational excellence, Johnson credited her father with her gift for numbers. “He originally worked with lumber. He could look at a tree and tell how many boards he could get out it,” Johnson said during an oral history interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project.
The current library building in White Sulphur Springs is named after Johnson. NASA also named its computational research facility in Hampton, VA, in her honor.
The White Sulphur Springs Public library is offering the exhibit “to remind everybody of this fascinating lady, who grew up and spent some of her formative years in White Sulphur and has given so much back to the country,” said Library Director Joann Hartzell. “As an African American and a woman, she had challenges, but she still did her best.”
The exhibit will feature photos of Johnson’s life in White Sulphur Springs and at NASA. There also will be a continuous audiovisual display commemorating Johnson’s many awards and achievements.
“We’re so pleased to be able to honor her in this way,” Hartzell said.
Katherine Coleman was born in White Sulphur Springs. According to her NASA biography, even as a child, she was fascinated by numbers: “I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed…” She was a high school freshman at age 10.
Her father’s decision to drive the family 120 miles to Institute for better educational opportunities resulted in Johnson graduating from high school at age 14 and West Virginia State College at 18. During the academic year, her father would remain in White Sulphur Springs working while Johnson, her three siblings, and her mother resided near the school.
In 1953, Johnson began working at a federal agency analyzing data for its flight research division. During that time, she worked with a group of other African American women in a segregated section. She also was raising three daughters with her husband, James Goble, who died of cancer. Later, she married Korean War veteran James Johnson.
She became famous as a human computer for her work at NASA, where she calculated the spacecraft trajectory for Alan Shepherd, the first American in space.
By the time of John Glenn’s mission that made him the first American to orbit the Earth, a worldwide communications network was set up to link tracking stations to electronic computers in Washington, DC, Cape Canaveral and Bermuda. These computers were programmed with the orbital equations to control the space capsule’s trajectory. Glenn requested that Johnson recheck the machines’ calculations as part of the preflight checklist. “If she says they’re good,” he is reported to have said, “then I’m ready to go.”
Johnson also was part of the team that determined where and when to launch the rocket for the Apollo 11 mission that sent the first men to the moon. Her skills also were used to help start the Space Shuttle program.
Johnson is the recipient of many honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. Johnson will be honored at the West Virginia State University on Aug. 25 with the unveiling of a statue made in her honor. She and her family will enjoy a private birthday dinner that weekend.
Admission to the White Sulphur Springs Library exhibit is free. The library is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. More information is available by calling 304-536-1171.