Legendary NASA Mathematician Depicted in Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson, Dies at 101
NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose precise calculations helped Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, has died at the age of 101.
Johnson, a native of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, was among a team of female, African American mathematicians working for NASA in the 1960s that inspired the Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures. She was played by actress Taraji P. Henson.
One of the finest mathematical minds in the country, Johnson’s impeccable calculations helped plot the successful flight of Alan B. Shepard Jr., who became the first American in space in 1961. She also calculated the trajectory that put Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969.
In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, who proclaimed 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.”
The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, was dedicated in her honor in 2017.
Octavia Spencer, who brought Dorothy Vaughan—another female African American mathematician who worked for NASA—to life in Hidden Figures, responded to the news of Johnson’s death on Instagram.
“So sad to hear that we’ve lost #KatherineJohnson, a pioneer who contributed so much to humanity!” Spencer wrote. “It was an honor to be a part of telling her story and feeling the impact that her legacy has had on future women in STEM.”
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“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 human quest to explore space," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement Monday. “At NASA we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her. 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.”
Our hearts go out to Ms. Johnson’s family and friends.