Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician Who Inspired Movie ‘Hidden Figures,’ Dies At 101
Katherine Johnson, one of NASA’s black woman “human computers” depicted in the movie Hidden Figures, died at age 101 on Monday.
Johnson’s mathematical skills helped rocket the first American man into orbit in 1962, and land men on the moon in 1969. Her name, along with the names of other black women mathematicians at NASA, stayed largely out of the limelight until the release of the film Hidden Figures in 2016. In the movie she was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson.
NASA announced her death on Twitter:
The @NASA family will never forget Katherine Johnson’s courage and the milestones we could not have reached without her. Her story and her grace continue to inspire the world. https://t.co/UPOqo0sLfb pic.twitter.com/xwnRX9oZoi
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) February 24, 2020
Johnson was one of the first black women hired by NASA in 1953, which at that point was called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. She was hired after the defense department passed a law prohibiting racial discrimination in hiring. Although many NASA engineers saw her and the women she worked with as “computers in skirts,” she quickly became integral part of the team, often the only woman in briefings.
The first American man to orbit Earth John Glenn, famously told engineers to “get the girl,” referencing Johnson, so she could check the computer’s calculations before he went into space.
“If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go,” Johnson remembered Glenn saying. The flight was a success, and marked a turning point for America in the space race against the Soviet Union.
According to NASA, she often said her greatest contribution to space exploration were her calculations that helped sync Project Apollo’s Lunar Module with the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module, aka helping land the first men on the moon.
Johnson worked at NASA for 33 years, until 1986. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2017, NASA’s Langley facility in Virginia, where Johnson had worked, opened the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. In 2019, NASA renamed their Independent Verification and Validation facility after her too.
With slide rules and pencils, Katherine Johnson’s brilliant mind helped launch our nation into space.
— NASA (@NASA) February 24, 2020
Many took to Twitter to remember Johnson’s legacy:
Thank you QUEEN #KatherineJohnson for sharing your intelligence, poise, grace and beauty with the world! Because of your hard work little girls EVERYWHERE can dream as big as the MOON!!! Your legacy will live on… https://t.co/sMv6kETbjV
— Taraji P. Henson (@TherealTaraji) February 24, 2020
Godspeed, Katherine Johnson. https://t.co/A5kSE64lR4
— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) February 24, 2020
As a child, Katherine Johnson said she “counted everything: the steps, the dishes, the stars in the sky.” As a mathematician, she broke barriers to help reach those stars. Her calculations helped put Americans in space, in orbit, and, finally, on the moon. #HiddenFigures pic.twitter.com/5ONuV5zhQ0
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) February 24, 2020
“Hidden Figures” reminds us that Computers & Calculators were smart women who knew math. In the early US Space Program, that math was orbital mechanics, led by Katherine Johnson 1918-2020. May the number of those inspired by her story be computationally incalculable. Godspeed. pic.twitter.com/BuMRxOHyQD
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) February 24, 2020
Katherine Johnson pioneered new frontiers for space exploration & shattered barriers of race and gender, inspiring generations of women & girls to reach for the stars. May it be a comfort to her family that so many mourn with them. https://t.co/Kjtrgve0eT
— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) February 24, 2020
Among a long list of accomplishments, Katherine Johnson was one of the first 3 African Americans (the first African American woman) to attend graduate school at @WestVirginiaU.
The NASA facility in WV was renamed in her honor.
RIP Katherine Johnson, West Virginia hero. pic.twitter.com/bOcdJHharB
— Emily Calandrelli (@TheSpaceGal) February 24, 2020
I’m so saddened to hear of Ms Katherine Johnson’s passing but feel so lucky to know her story, to share it & celebrate her in her lifetime. With a heavy heart I’ll have to change the dates in Little Leaders. Still it feels good to know she’ll be remembered forever as leader 🌕⭐️ pic.twitter.com/rW1vZnf3Jt
— Vashti Harrison (@VashtiHarrison) February 24, 2020
Katherine Johnson was a trailblazer, pushing us to greater heights above Earth with her work at NASA and inspiring generations of women and girls to follow in her footsteps. Our thoughts are with her family and friends as they mourn her passing. https://t.co/uYwiISu8XW
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) February 24, 2020