“We’re saddened by the passing of celebrated #HiddenFigures mathematician Katherine Johnson,” NASA announced on Twitter. “Today, we celebrate her 101 years of life and honor her legacy of excellence that broke down racial and social barriers.”
“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,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “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.”
Johnson began working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later became NASA, in 1953 at the Langley laboratory in Virginia. She calculated the 1961 flight path of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Johnson worked at NASA’s Flight Research Division for 33 years, battling racism and sexism to climb her way up the NASA chain. She was the first woman in the division to receive credit as an author of a research report. Johnson eventually did calculations for the first moon landing. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Johnson was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the 2016 Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures” about the African American women who were pivotal in the Space Race, helping launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit. Before his flight, Glenn famously asked Johnson to double-check the math of an electronic computer.
Octavia Spencer played Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe depicted Mary Jackson, the other two women who were the brains of the operation. In addition to best picture, the film received Oscar nominations for adapted screenplay and supporting actress (Spencer). Johnson attended the Academy Awards, where she received a standing ovation, with the movie’s cast and crew in 2016.
“Hidden Figures” won the SAG Award for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture.