With Thomas Nelson Community College celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, it was only fitting it honored a longtime partnership at its annual Presidential Leadership Award ceremony Thursday night. The College established the award in 2007 to honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by recognizing an outstanding community leader or entity.
Dr. Katherine G. Johnson, featured in the 2016 film "Hidden Figures," and NASA’s Langley Research Center were recognized. Via video shown during Thursday's ceremony, Johnson received the College’s 12th annual Presidential Leadership Award. She continued to be an inspiration.
“You must take advantage of every (educational) opportunity,” said Johnson, who did just that by graduating from high school at the age of 14 and West Virginia State College at 18 with degrees in math and French before beginning her groundbreaking career.
Johnson, an African-American pioneer in mathematics, worked at NASA and its precursor, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), for 33 years before retiring in1986. She turned 99 on Aug. 26, 2017 and lives in Newport News but was unable to attend the event because of a previous engagement.
“It was a great privilege for me to recently meet with Katherine Johnson and to listen to her speak about her experiences and using her education in mathematics to seize the opportunity when that opportunity came along … and then use that to make major contributions to all the advancements that were associated with the center,” said Thomas Nelson President John Dever.
Deputy Director of NASA’s Langley Research Center Clayton P. Turner accepted the College’s 50th anniversary Presidential Leadership Award on behalf of NASA. Thomas Nelson recognized NASA for its strides in diversity.
“I’m particularly proud that this award honors the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who so ardently promoted social progress,” Turner said. “The desire to move forward, to build a better life for our children and our children’s children, that’s a fundamental human trait. At NASA Langley, I get to see that in action every day.
"I’m glad to say that the equality that Dr. Martin Luther King worked for remains a priority for both Langley and for Thomas Nelson,” he added.
The relationship between Thomas Nelson and NASA dates to the 1970s, a few years after Thomas Nelson was founded. At the Hampton-based center, cooperative education programs, including apprenticeships and employment opportunities, have enriched the lives of Thomas Nelson STEM students and contributed to the region's economic growth. Dever said between 500 and 600 Thomas Nelson graduates have gone on to work for NASA in a variety of roles, including as technician apprentices.
“That collaboration between us has been quite a contribution for us as a center, as an agency and as a nation,” Turner said.
NASA celebrated its centennial last year, which offered Thomas Nelson the chance to learn more about the Center.
“We have recalled, and learned much more about the Center’s amazing role in utilizing its superb capabilities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to break through one barrier after another so that humankind has been able to realize its centuries-old dream for flight and the exploration of space,” Dever said.
More than 75 people, including nearly 20 NASA employees, attended the event.
Johnson calculated the trajectories, launch windows and emergency backup return paths for numerous NASA missions and was well-known for her computerized celestial navigation. When NASA utilized electronic computers for the first time on John Glenn's orbit of Earth in 1962, he refused to fly unless Johnson verified the calculations using her desktop mechanical calculating machine. She also worked on Alan Shepard's space flight in 1961, the Apollo 11 flight to the Moon in 1969, the Apollo 13 Moon Mission in 1970 and many others. In 2015, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. A year later, NASA dedicated the Langley Research Center's Katherine G. Johnson Computational Building in her honor.
She was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia and showed an interest in math at an early age. After graduating from college, she spent 10 years as a teacher before taking a job at the all-black West Area Computing section at NACA’s Langley laboratory in 1953. One of her supervisors at NASA was T. Melvin Butler, who later became the first chairman of the board at Thomas Nelson.
NASA’s Langley Research Center has been at the leading edge of aerospace achievement, scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs since it was established in 1917. It was the nation’s first civilian aeronautical research laboratory, and has evolved into a world leader in research, technology development, and scientific discovery in support of NASA’s aeronautics, Earth science, space technology and exploration missions.
Today, Langley continues to make revolutionary improvements in aviation, making aircraft safer, faster and more efficient. Langley studies the Earth’s atmosphere and conducts airborne and space-based measurements in an effort to better understand our changing planet. Concepts and technologies needed for the journey to the moon, Mars and farther into the solar system also are being developed at Langley. To find out more about NASA Langley, visit https://www.nasa.gov/langley.