'Hidden Figures' Mathematician Katherine Johnson Dies At 101

by Julie Scagell
NASA Mathematician And 'Hidden Figures' Inspiration Katherine Johnson Dies: Katherine Johnson At Wor...
Donaldson Collection/Getty

Katherine Johnson was responsible for paving the way for the first manned space mission

Katherine Johnson, a mathematician known as one of NASA’s human “computers” died today. Her decades of work to further the cause for space exploration was profiled in the book and movie Hidden Figures portrayed by Taraji P. Henson. She was 101.

Her death was announced by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, NPR reported. “The NASA family will never forget Katherine Johnson’s courage and the milestones we could not have reached without her,” Bridenstine wrote on Twitter. “Her story and her grace continue to inspire the world.”

As a young girl, Johnson was quickly seen as gifted in math and science. She graduated from high school at just 14 years old and finished college with degrees in math and French from historically black West Virginia State College. In 1953, she took a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics — which would become NASA. “Everybody there was doing research,” she recalled in later years, “You had a mission and you worked on it.”

Johnson most certainly did. She calculated the flight path for America’s first manned space mission and the first moon landing, then later did work for the space shuttle program. She was one of only a handful of African American women hired to do computing at Langley’s Research Center in Virginia.

Johnson fought racial and gender discrimination throughout her career, telling WHRO in 2011, “I just happened to be working with guys and when they had briefings, I asked permission to go. And they said, ‘Well, the girls don’t usually go.’ and I said, ‘Well, is there a law?’ They said, ‘No.’ So then my boss said, ‘Let her go.'”

President Barack Obama awarded her the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2015. “In her 33 years at NASA, Katherine was a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science, and reach for the stars,” Obama said.

Johnson said her greatest contribution to space exploration was making “the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module.” Yes, she put the men on the moon. She was also known for work that led to the first American orbital spaceflight, piloted by John Glenn.

“Glenn’s flight was a success, and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space,” NASA said.

“We’re saddened by the passing of celebrated #HiddenFigures mathematician Katherine Johnson,” NASA wrote on Twitter. “Today, we celebrate her 101 years of life and honor her legacy of excellence that broke down racial and social barriers.”