Katherine Johnson, subject of ‘Hidden Figures’ movie, has died at 101
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Katherine G. Johnson, the mathematician whose calculations helped propel U.S. astronauts into space and who was the subject of an Academy Award-nominated film, has died, NASA confirmed. She was 101.
Johnson was known as a “computer,” one of a small cohort of African-American female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Jim Crow era — back when “the computers wore skirts.” As a black woman living in the segregated South, she experienced discrimination at work and had to use separate facilities from her white colleagues. Still, wielding little more than pencils, slide rules and rulers, Johnson and her colleagues helped send Americans into space.
That persistence earned the respect of her colleagues throughout the agency.
“I don’t have a feeling of inferiority,” Johnson once said, according to The New York Times. “Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.”
Their stories, and Johnson’s, went mostly unnoticed until the 2016 movie, “Hidden Figures.” Taraji P. Henson portrayed Johnson, and Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae starred as Johnson’s colleagues at NASA. The movie received three Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, and won Best Movie at the BET Awards.
Johnson received The Points Guy’s Lifetime Achievement award at the 2019 TPG Awards. At the December 9 awards ceremony, TPG honored Mrs. Johnson for her contributions to aeronautics. Her children accepted on her behalf. In 2015 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
In 2017, NASA dedicated a building to Johnson, called the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where she lived.
Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918, Johnson was always fascinated by numbers. In her rural hometown, formal education for black students ended in the eighth grade but she went on to earn a graduate degree at West Virginia University.
There, she was one of the first African Americans to enroll in the mathematics program. After graduate school, Ms. Johnson joined Langley Research Center in Hampton, as a research mathematician for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, according to her NASA biography. She worked at the agency from 1953 until 1986.
Johnson correctly calculated the trajectory for the trip that saw Alan Shepard become the first American in space. Less than a year later, the astronaut John Glenn (who would later become a U.S. senator) personally requested that Johnson recheck the calculations before his flight, during which he became the first American to orbit the Earth.
Upon her death, NASA honored Johnson in several tweets, with one reading, “[n]o longer a Hidden Figure, her bravery and commitment to excellence leaves an eternal legacy for us all.”
In a statement, the agency said that 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.”
The NAACP also honored Johnson on Twitter, saying, “Katherine Johnson was an inspiration to generations of people, as she worked to break down both racial and gender barriers.”
President Barack Obama presents Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 at the White House. (Photo by Kris Connor/WireImage)
Featured image courtesy of Kris Connor/WireImage
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