NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose calculations helped America’s first human spaceflight in 1961, has died at the age of 101, the space agency said Monday.
Johnson was among a team of female Black mathematicians working for NASA in the 1960s that inspired the movie “Hidden Figures.”
“At NASA we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “We will continue building on her legacy and work tirelessly to increase opportunities for everyone who has something to contribute toward the ongoing work of raising the bar of human potential.”
Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918, Johnson showed a remarkable aptitude for numbers at a young age. She was a high school freshman by the age of 10, and by 18 she had graduated from West Virginia State College — a historically black school known today as West Virginia State University — with highest honors. She went on to become one of three students selected to integrate the state’s graduate schools when she enrolled in a graduate math program at West Virginia State.
After starting a family and working as a teacher, Johnson was hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later became NASA, in 1953. There, she joined an all-Black computing section at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
Her work included providing trajectory analysis to send Alan Shepard to space — the first American to do so — in 1961. She was also the first woman in the Flight Research Division to author a research report, having co-authored a report in 1960 on orbital spaceflight. It was her first of 26 research reports that she would author or co-author during her 33 years at Langley, according to NASA.
She became most well-known for her work on John Glenn’s 1962 orbital mission, which inspired the 2017 Academy Award-nominated movie, “Hidden Figures.”
In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Barack Obama, who hailed her as a “pioneer in American space history.”