Katherine Johnson, a trailblazing NASA mathematician whose story was told in the “Hidden Figures” book and movie, died Monday morning.
She was 101.
Johnson, a Black woman from West Virginia, was hired at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1953 as part of the so-called Computer Pool, a group of people, mostly women, who worked as data processors before computers were invented.
Among her projects were Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight, and the Lunar Orbiter Program, which mapped the moon’s surface ahead of the 1969 moon landing. But her most well-known work was on John Glenn’s 1962 orbital mission, when he ordered engineers to “get the girl” to re-run the equations calculated by the computer for his trajectory.
“If she says they’re good,” Glenn said, “then I’m ready to go.”
In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
“Today, we celebrate her 101 years of life and honor her legacy of excellence that broke down racial and social barriers,” NASA tweeted Monday.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called Johnson an “American hero” and said her “pioneering legacy will never be forgotten.”
“Ms. Johnson helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of color in the universal quest to explore space,” Bridenstine said in a statement. “Her dedication and skill as a mathematician helped put humans on the moon and before that made it possible for our astronauts to take the first steps in space that we now follow on a journey to Mars.
Johnson’s barrier-breaking work was immortalized in “Hidden Figures,” written by Margot Lee Shetterly. The 2016 Oscar-nominated movie, based on Shetterly’s book, starred Taraji P. Henson as Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson.