Katherine Johnson Dead, NASA Mathematician Dies At Age 101

Janelle Monae, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and actors Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer pose backstage during the 89th Annual Academy Awards
Christopher Polk / Getty Images

Katherine Johnson has died. The pioneering NASA mathematician, whose work was critical to launching the first manned space missions, passed away at age 101, according to a tweet from the American space agency.

“We’re saddened by the passing of celebrated #HiddenFigures mathematician Katherine Johnson. Today, we celebrate her 101 years of life and honor her legacy of excellence that broke down racial and social barriers,” the tweet reads.

Johnson was instrumental in a number of NASA missions, and was most famously behind the calculations of John Glenn’s orbit into space, the first time an American had circled the globe. In addition, her codification of mathematical principles still remain the core of manned space travel to this day.


Johnson Was A Pioneer For Both Women And The Black Community

Johnson’s accomplishments are all the more impressive considering the significant barriers faced due to her gender and race. According to NASA‘s biographical page, Johnson started at the organization all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’s — the predecessor for NASA — Langley laboratory back in 1953. At the time, she was tasked with studying flight research.

Her intelligence was such an asset that she began working on more advanced missions, only to be left out of important briefings because of her gender and race. But Johnson fought back against the unfair treatment.

“I just happened to be working with guys and when they had briefings, I asked permission to go,” she described, via NPR.

“And they said, ‘Well, the girls don’t usually go.’ and I said, ‘Well, is there a law?’ They said, ‘No.’ So then my boss said, ‘Let her go.’ ”

Though she suffered personal tragedies during her time at the NACA after her husband passed away of cancer, she continued from professional achievement to achievement, and was invited to come “along with the program” when the United States launched its first space-focused organization, NASA, per their website.

Johnson was in charge of trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission, which was the first time an American was launched into space. She also coauthored an important paper titled “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position, which was the first time that a woman had received authorship credit of a research report in the Flight Research Division.

However, her most well-known achievement is her work in John Glenn’s orbital mission. She was so instrumental that Glenn demanded engineers “get” Johnson after computer models appeared to off.

“If [Johnson] says they’re good, then I’m ready to go,” Glenn reportedly said.


Johnson Earned Wide Spread Fame After The Release Of Hollywood Film ‘Hidden Figures’

.S. President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson during an East Room ceremony November 24, 2015 at the White House in Washington, DC.
  Alex Wong / Getty Images

Though Johnson did not receive the widespread acclaim that she deserved during much of her life, that all changed with the release of the 2016 hit film Hidden Figures. Starring Academy Award nominated actress Taraji P. Henson as Johnson, the movie documented Johnson’s role in Glenn’s space flight, as well as the racism and challenged she faced as a black woman on the team.

The movie was both a commercial and critical success, earning over $236 million globally.

In addition, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian honor bestowed by the United States — by President Barack Obama in 2015.

She has served and continues to serve as an inspiration for millions, both at NASA and beyond.