Katherine Johnson, subject of ‘Hidden Figures’ movie, has died at 101

Feb 24, 2020

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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.

HAMPTON, VA - 1980: NASA space scientist, and mathematician Katherine Johnson poses for a portrait at work at NASA Langley Research Center in 1980 in Hampton, Virginia. (Photo by NASA/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)
Mathematician Katherine Johnson at work at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in 1980. (Photo by NASA/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)

 

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.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Physicist Katherine Johnson poses in the press room during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
Johnson in the press room during the Academy Awards in 2017. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

 

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.”

Related coverage: TPG honors Katherine Johnson, the woman who helped propel Americans to space

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.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 09: Katherine Moore and Joylette Hylick speak onstage on behalf of their mother, Katherine Johnson, who is the Honoree of the Lifetime Achievement Award during The 2019 TPG Awards at The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on December 09, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Pont/Getty Images for The Points Guy)
Katherine Moore and Joylette Hylick, Johnson’s daughters, speak on behalf of their mother, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2019 TPG Awards ceremony in New York City. (Photo by Mike Pont/Getty Images for The Points Guy)

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.”

WASHINGTON, DC- NOVEMBER 24: President Barack Obama presents Katherine G. Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the 2015 Presidential Medal Of Freedom Ceremony at the White House on November 24, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/WireImage)

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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