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Two new films profile NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLEESTON, W.Va. — One West Virginia woman’s story will be told in two upcoming films. But this is no ordinary West Virginian.

Katherine Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2015.
(AP file photo)

Katherine Johnson, a 98-year-old native of White Sulphur Springs, was hired as a mathematician for the original version of NASA in 1953, calculating the trajectories for astronauts journeying into space.

Local documentarian Diana Sole Walko interviewed Johnson for a film about her life that she hopes to release in 2017, in the wake of the premiere of another major movie about Johnson and two of her colleagues that comes out on Christmas Day. Sole Walko’s film is aptly titled “Outlier.”

The project originally began as a multi-part documentary series on West Virginia history, but when funding stalled, she realized that one interview from her footage was worthy of its own biographical documentary: Johnson’s.

The Gazette-Mail named Johnson as its West Virginian of the Year for 2015.

Known as a “computer” in an era before modern computing technology, Johnson and her precise calculations helped with the journey into space. Although NASA eventually started using computers, John Glenn still requested that she manually confirm the calculations done by the electronic computer before he would go on to orbit Earth.

At the time, NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), the predecessor to NASA, was actively looking to hire women as “computers” to do mathematical computations by hand. But why women? According to Sole Walko, when she asked Johnson, the response was simple. “Men don’t have the patience for it,” Sole Walko said Johnson told her.

Johnson was educated in West Virginia, where her father moved the family to Institute so she could attend high school. She went on to graduate from West Virginia State College. While it’s easy to become disillusioned with the state, Sole Walko said, she focuses her work on the positive stories that come out of West Virginia, and Johnson’s is just one of them.

While Johnson’s West Virginia background had a strong influence on her, her story is not only a story about West Virginia. “She was undeterred in following her passion. Her journey took her down some side paths, some detours, but she ultimately lived her dream, and that’s a universal story,” Sole Walko said.

Johnson’s daughter, Joylette Hylick, said her mother’s love of learning has transcended age and time. Even today, in her twilight years, Hylick said Johnson still asks, “What did you learn today?”

“She’s always, always, always wanted to learn; to learn more and to help others know what she knew,” Hylick said.

Sole Walko’s upcoming documentary is not the only new film to highlight Johnson. A sold-out screening of “Hidden Figures,” starring Taraji P. Henson as Johnson, will be shown at 7 p.m. Thursday at West Virginia State University for students, alumni and members of the university community.

Stories like Johnson’s, Sole Walko said, “are the stories our children need to hear. They’re the stories adults need to hear to be reminded we are capable of much more than we believe.”

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