Katherine Johnson, a pioneer in mathematics and manned space travel whose story was told in the film Hidden Figures, has died at the age of 101, NASA has confirmed. Johnson began her work as a “computer” at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ Langley laboratory in 1953; she would retire in 1986. Within the space program, “computers” were a group of mostly women who did calculations and data analysis by hand, behind the scenes. Though the work was predominantly invisible, Johnson is best known for completing the calculations work that led to the safe launch and return of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, a moment highlighted in Hidden Figures.
Prior to being hired at NACA, Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and French at West Virginia State. In 1939, Johnson, along with two others, were the first black students to integrate West Virginia University. She pursued a master’s in mathematics for one year before leaving WVU to start a family, later becoming a teacher. Johnson authored and co-authored numerous research reports at NASA, even becoming the first woman in the Flight Research Division to be credited as an author on a research report outlining equations for orbital spaceflight.
Though most of the “computers” hired by NASA were white women, work shortages pushed the agency to hire black women, like Johnson, into the positions. Without Johnson’s work, and the work of the mostly computers of her time, the space program would not be where it is today.
In 2015, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. A historian for NASA, Bill Barry, told the Washington Post, “She had a singular intellect, curiosity and skill set in mathematics that allowed her to make many contributions, each of which might be considered worthy of a single lifetime.” Katherine Johnson, who was classified as a “subprofessional” when she first began at NACA, leaves behind a legacy of strength, humility, and excellence in the face of adversity. May she find herself among the very same stars that influenced her life’s work.