Groundbreaking mathematician Katherine Johnson, one of the first African American women to work as a NASA scientist, and who played a pivotal role in calculating the trajectory of spaceflights during the 1960s space race with Russia, has died, according to reports. She was 101.
A NASA employee for 35 years, Johnson's major contributions to the space program were memorialized in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures.”
She was portrayed in the movie by actress Taraji P. Henson.
The film, which was nominated for an Oscar, also stars Octavia Spencer as mathematician Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as engineer Mary Jackson.
“We'll remember Katherine Johnson both for her contributions to NASA and to science, and for helping us gain a new perspective on the roles of African Americans and women in American history," said Margot Shetterly, who wrote the book “Hidden Figures.”
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine issued a statement on Twitter on Monday, saying “NASA will never forget Katherine Johnson’s courage and the milestones we could not have reached without her.”
Johnson broke racial and gender barriers to help put some of the first Americans into space, including Alan Shepard, the first American in space in 1961, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962.
Before computers, Johnson made calculations manually.
She accurately determined the trajectory of Glenn’s first successful orbit. According to reports, Glenn even requested that Johnson personally check calculations that had been made by electronic computers, which were newly in use at the time.
Glenn reportedly said, "If she says they're good, then I'm ready to go."
Her calculations were also used to land Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969 and then returned it safely to Earth.
Johnson was a West Virginia whiz kid, going to high school at 10 and graduating from college at 18. She got a job as a teacher before hearing that the government agency, which later became NASA, was looking for mathematicians to solve complex math problems related to flight in the age before computers. She went to work for it in 1953 and remained until 1986.
Despite her contributions to the space program, nearly no one outside the agency knew Johnson’s name, but the film changed that, bringing her out of the shadows for millions of new admirers.
The film was nominated for three Oscars, including best picture. Although “Hidden Figures” did not win, Johnson received a standing ovation at the 2017 Academy Awards as she appeared onstage with the cast.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia also paid tribute to Johnson on Twitter on Monday.
In 2015, then-President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach,” Obama said.
In 2017, NASA dedicated a building to her, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
Also in 2017, Clark Atlanta University awarded Johnson an honorary degree.
The New York Times said Johnson described NASA in the 1960s as “a time when computers wore skirts.”
For some years at midcentury, the black women who worked as “computers” were subjected to a double segregation: Consigned to separate office, dining and bathroom facilities, they were kept separate from the much larger group of white women who also worked as NASA mathematicians. The white women in turn were segregated from the agency’s male mathematicians and engineers, according to The New York Times.
Over time, Johnson's work won her acceptance within the agency despite her race, The Times reported.
“NASA was a very professional organization,” Mrs. Johnson told The Observer of Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 2010. “They didn’t have time to be concerned about what color I was.”
— This is a developing story. Please return to AJC.com for updates.
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