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R.I.P. Katherine Johnson, historic NASA mathematician and subject of Hidden Figures

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. Katherine Johnson, historic NASA mathematician and subject of Hidden Figures
Photo: Frazer Harrison (Getty Images)

Katherine Johnson, the pioneering mathematician essential to America’s first trip to space and the main subject of the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, has died. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed her death via a statement: “Our @NASA family is sad to learn the news that Katherine Johnson passed away this morning at 101 years old. She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten.” She was 101 years old.


Born in West Virginia in 1918, Johnson always had a special fascination for numbers and math. After obtaining math and French degrees from West Virginia State College, she became a teacher at a Black public school in Marion, Virginia. She was the first Black woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University, but left after one year to focus on her growing family with then-husband, James Goble. That did not hinder her from pursuing a career as a research mathematician and in 1953, Johnson accepted a job along with a group of women at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which would later become NASA.

Johnson was often referred to as a “human computer” who was originally responsible for aggregating information from black boxes of planes. When she was assigned to help the all-male flight team, her proficiency in analytic geometry made her a fixture in a position that was originally supposed to be temporary. Her by-hand calculations determined the trajectories, launch windows, and return paths for Project Mercury flights for astronauts Alan Shephard and John Glenn. Her ability to perform under high-pressure circumstances ensured both their safety and her inspiring legacy.

Despite how essential her work was to the program, she was still subjected to the segregation and discriminatory practices that aligned with the state laws of the time. Along with the other Black women in the work pool, Johnson was forced to use facilities and work spaces that were designated specifically for employees of color. Still, she ascended NASA’s professional ladder and became the go-to mathematical consultant for major flights. Before embarking on his historic Friendship 7 trip that would make him the first American to orbit Earth, Glenn insisted that all the calculations be double checked by Johnson before departing. She also helped to calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the Moon.

Her extraordinary story, along with those of the other brilliant Black women at NASA, inspired the non-fiction book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, which was adapted in 2016 into a film starring Taraji P. Henson as Johnson. President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal Of Freedom in 2015, stating that “Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.” She is survived by two daughters, Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore; six grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.