Katherine Johnson: Iconic NASA mathematician celebrated in movie 'Hidden Figures' dies at 101

Her dedication and skill as a mathematician helped put humans on the Moon


                            Katherine Johnson: Iconic NASA mathematician celebrated in movie 'Hidden Figures' dies at 101
Katherine Johnson (NASA)

Katherine Johnson, the pioneering African-American mathematician at NASA, died on Monday aged 101. Her calculations played a key role in sending humans to the moon over 50 years ago. Johnson was essayed in the 2017 film 'Hidden Figures' as well. Johnson passed away at a retirement home in Newport News, Virginia.

"She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten," NASA Administrator James Bridenstine said in a statement, remembering her contributions to NASA's space missions. “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," he added.

Her work on space missions inspired the Oscar-nominated 2016 film 'Hidden Figures', a movie which is also loosely based on two other black women colleagues -- Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. Taraji P. Henson portrayed Johnson on screen. The movie brought their contributions, which were little known at that time, into the spotlight. Celebrating how these women broke social and racial barriers, the movie narrates how their calculations helped put the US astronaut John Glenn into orbit around the Earth in 1962.

Johnson calculated rocket trajectories and Earth orbits for Nasa's early space missions as well.

In 2015, at the age of 97, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

Early life

Born in 1918, Johnson developed am early interest in numbers. "I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to the church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed…anything that could be counted, I did," she once said.

She began attending high school by 13 and enrolled in the college at the age of 18. (NASA)

She began attending high school by 13 and enrolled in the college at the age of 18. Soon after graduating with the highest honors in 1937, Johnson began teaching at a black public school in Virginia. 

Her talent took her to West Virginia’s graduate school. At the university, Johnson was mentored by math professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. "You would make a great research mathematician,” Claytor is reported to have told her.

But she quit graduate school to start a family with her first husband, James Goble. She resumed work after her daughters got older.

In 1952, a relative informed her about openings at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory, headed by fellow West Virginian Dorothy Vaughan.

According to NASA, Johnson was inquisitive, making her stand out among her peers. At that time, none of the other women had ever asked questions.

"She was told that women didn’t participate in the briefings or attend meetings; she asked if there were a law against it. The answer, of course, was no, and so Johnson began to attend briefings," NASA said.

At NASA, she put her math skills to work, as she analyzed flight tests. Soon, she was given the job title "computer" and was responsible for calculating trajectories for early US space missions.

Johnson continued at Langley until she retired in 1983.  "I found what I was looking for at Langley," she told NASA. "This was what a research mathematician did. I went to work every day for 33 years happy. Never did I get up and say I don't want to go to work," she added.

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