Katherine Johnson, NASA Scientist Dubbed ‘Human Computer’ For Writing Complex Calculations By Hand, Turns 100

Frazer HarrisonGetty Images

NASA scientist Katherine Johnson, whose calculations allowed Americans to visit space, turned 100 years old on Sunday, according to the Daily Press. The former “human computer” of NASA Langley Research Center intends to celebrate her birthday at her alma mater, West Virginia University, where she will be honored with a statue of her likeness. The president of the university, Anthony Jenkins, recently referred to Johnson as “someone who changed America.”

When asked how she has been able to maintain such good health and live a lengthy life, Johnson responded, “I’m just lucky.”

One of the other “human computers” at NASA, Christine Darden, who was an apprentice of sorts to Johnson, commented on the 100-year-old’s signature smile, adding that — even in her old age — she still has “that wit about her.”

One of Johnson’s daughters, Katherine Moore, noted that her mother rarely ever travels anymore, but she always responds to the hundreds of letters she is regularly sent. “We try to keep her calm, because her energy wears pretty quickly,” Moore said. “What’s keeping her going right now is the trip her birthday weekend — ‘I’m going to West Virginia!’ She gets tired easily, but when she has something lined up, she rises to the occasion.”

Johnson only started receiving a mass amount of national attention after the release of the novel turned film “Hidden Figures,” which tells the story of a group of African-American women at NASA Langley. These female scientists and pioneers excelled in their fields at a time when the STEM field was not particularly welcoming to women or to people of color. Along with Johnson, mathemeticians Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson are also named in the novel, both of whom are now deceased.

“She is the first person to remind us that all of the work she did was as part of a team,” said Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly, referring to various interviews in which Johnson refused to take sole credit for anything. Johnson would repeatedly stress during interviews that the team of women she worked with were all equally valuable and instrumental to the success of their projects.

“One of her greatest joys was rolling up her sleeves and working side by side with other brilliant people,” Shetterly continued. “It’s a sign of her belief in her own gifts that she’s the first to call attention to the work of others.”

When told that her work was particularly special, Johnson said, “That’s crazy!”

“All jobs are important to somebody,” she added. “They had to be important to somebody. My theory is, do the best you can all the time. No fooling around.”