How a NASA legend’s family helped insprire my career
By Freddie Langley
As one of the key flight controllers on the NG-15 mission that sent the S.S. Katherine Johnson Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station in February 2021, I had what you could call a full-circle moment.
My connection to the NG-15 namesake, Katherine Johnson, wasn’t just from the pages of a history book or from watching her story in the film “Hidden Figures.” No, instead, I was once fortunate enough to be mentored by Mrs. Johnson’s daughter, the late Constance G. Garcia, known to me as Ms. Connie. The inspiration I received from hearing her stories of the gifted and groundbreaking Black female mathematicians — known as “human computers” back then — working at NASA Langley Research Center in the 1940s ultimately led me to pursue a career in space and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Katherine Johnson went on to perform the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission in 1961 — the country’s first human spaceflight — as well as to co-author a paper on orbital spaceflight and landing, becoming the first woman to receive credit as an author of a research paper at NASA.
I grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where many of NASA’s mathematicians and innovators live and work at NASA Langley. My family has a rich background in music and education, and it was at a local performance arts school where I met Ms. Connie.
Ms. Connie was a teacher in the Newport News school system and volunteered with the performance arts school in her spare time. I attended the school to play piano, and she took me under her wing, along with numerous other young students.
She was a compassionate, caring and detail-oriented mentor. I would watch how she approached even her smallest tasks with precision and care. She always encouraged me to look my best and to pay attention to detail. Today, I like to believe she has become a piece of my reflection in the way I present myself to the world.
The tales I heard from Ms. Connie of her mother had a huge impact on me and my career path. At the time, her story wasn’t told in the manner that it should have been, and it was her success as an African American woman, working in a largely white, male-dominated field, that has helped inspire so many young women to work in STEM. It is one of the main reasons I work in the space field today.
Ms. Connie helped inspire me to give back as a mentor as well, and, today, I like to help tell stories of Katherine Johnson and her colleagues to other young women who I work with in the community.
To go from being inspired by Katherine Johnson and mentored by her daughter, to now having worked alongside NASA to send a spacecraft, named in her honor, into space … I couldn’t dream of a better story than that.
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