Katherine Johnson took her last flight into space on Feb. 20.
The S.S. Katherine Johnson, a supply satellite currently docked at the International Space Station, was named for the late NASA mathematician featured in the film “Hidden Figures.”
On Earth, Johnson’s incredible life and career are celebrated by many, but especially her daughter, Joylette Hylick, a Mt. Laurel resident who recently spoke about her mom’s autobiography in a virtual event for the Burlington County Library System.
“Mom remained to the very end the same person I described before, all her life. She was still funny, pleasant, bright, thoughtful and humble,” Hylick told a crowd of about 80 people.
Johnson was one of the first Black women hired by NASA as a mathematician. She helped to put the first American into space and to send modules to the moon. She was eventually awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
Johnson was reportedly called “the girl” by astronaut John Glenn, who refused to fly until the math used to coordinate his trip had been verified by her.
“Many have asked me over the years if John Glenn ever knew my name,” Hylick read from her mother’s memoir, “My Remarkable Journey.” “Who knows? It didn’t matter to me then, and it doesn’t matter now. It was enough for me that I knew when he needed ‘the girl’ to boost his confidence that he could entrust his life to the heavens, and get him back home.
“I was that girl.”
Hylick herself became “the girl,” following in Johnson’s footsteps with roles at NASA and Lockheed Martin before her retirement. She said although her mother did not push math in her family, the lessons Hylick learned from Johnson carried her throughout her life and career.
According to Hylick, Johnson’s keys to life start with a simple one: “Always do your best.” Others include “accept the help you’re given, help others when you can and you’re no better, you’re no worse.”
Johnson graduated from college in 1937 at just 18. Two years later, she was one of the first Black students to enroll in a graduate program at West Virginia University, integrating the school.
When she was hired to work at NASA, Johnson had to use a segregated restroom and cafeteria. Hylick said though she was required to use segregated facilities, she’s sure her mom just used whatever bathroom was closer. At lunch, Johsnon played bridge with NASA engineers.
“My doctor once told me, your mom is a genius, and geniuses never think they’re doing anything extraordinary,” Hylick remembered. “But everyone else does.”
In 2017, NASA hosted the ribbon cutting ceremony for a new building at the Langley Research Center named the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.
“Mom whispered to me, ‘It would have been nice to have it named after the team,’” Hylick recalled. “She never tried to draw attention. It was always about all of them.”
When she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Johnson glowed after Obama planted a kiss on her cheek.
“And then she said she wished she could talk to him about how they’re teaching children, because she said it ain’t good,” Hylick remembered with a laugh.
Hylick often speaks at elementary schools, where she said her mother’s story makes an impact on young students with big goals.
“Have a dream, and stay with it,” Hylick said. “Go for what you love to do and just keep working at it.”