Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who calculated rocket trajectories and earth orbits for NASA’s early space missions and was later portrayed in the 2016 hit film Hidden Figures, about pioneering black female aerospace workers, has died.
She was 101.
- Johnson was one of the “computers” who solved equations by hand in NASA’s early years
- She considered her work on the Apollo moon missions to be her greatest contribution to space exploration
- She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, the United States’ highest civilian honour
Johnson died of natural causes at a retirement community in Newport News, Virginia, family lawyer Donyale YH Reavis said.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement that Ms Johnson “helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of colour”.
Johnson was one of the “computers” who solved equations by hand during NASA’s early years and those of its precursor organisation, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
She and other black women initially worked in a racially segregated computing unit in Hampton, Virginia, that was not officially dissolved until NACA became NASA in 1958.
Johnson began work at Langley in the summer of 1953. (Supplied: NASA)
Signs had dictated which bathrooms the women could use.
Johnson focused on aeroplanes and other research at first. But her work at NASA’s Langley Research Centre eventually shifted to Project Mercury, the nation’s first human space program.
“Our office computed all the [rocket] trajectories,” Johnson told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in 2012.
“You tell me when and where you want it to come down, and I will tell you where and when and how to launch it.”
In 1961, Johnson did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission, the first to carry an American into space.
The next year, she manually verified the calculations of a nascent NASA computer, an IBM 7090, which plotted John Glenn’s orbits around the planet.
“Get the girl to check the numbers,” a computer-sceptical Glenn had insisted in the days before the launch.
Johnson joined the Hidden Figures cast on stage at the Oscars in 2017. (AP: Chris Pizzello)
“Katherine organised herself immediately at her desk, growing phone-book-thick stacks of data sheets a number at a time, blocking out everything except the labyrinth of trajectory equations,” Margot Lee Shetterly wrote in her 2016 book Hidden Figures, on which the film is based.
“It took a day and a half of watching the tiny digits pile up: eye-numbing, disorienting work,” Ms Shetterly wrote.
Ms Shetterly said that Ms Johnson was “exceptional in every way”.
Johnson and her co-workers had been relatively unsung heroes of America’s Space Race.
But in 2015, president Barack Obama awarded Johnson — then 97 — the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour.
After a lifetime of reaching for the stars, today, Katherine Johnson landed among them. She spent decades as a hidden figure, breaking barriers behind the scenes. But by the end of her life, she had become a hero to millions—including Michelle and me.
Today, Mr Obama tweeted: “After a lifetime of reaching for the stars, today, Katherine Johnson landed among them. She spent decades as a hidden figure, breaking barriers behind the scenes. But by the end of her life, she had become a hero to millions — including Michelle and me.”
Thank you QUEEN #KatherineJohnson for sharing your intelligence, poise, grace and beauty with the world! Because of your hard work little girls EVERYWHERE can dream as big as the MOON!!! Your legacy will live on FORVER AND EVER!!! You ran so we could fly!!! I will forever be honored to have been apart of bringing your story to life. You/your story was hidden and thank GOD you are #hiddennomore
The Hidden Figures book and film followed, telling the stories of Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, among others.
Johnson was portrayed in the film by actress Taraji P Henson. The film was nominated for best picture Oscar and grossed more than $US200 million ($300 million) worldwide.
In 2017, Johnson was brought on stage at the Academy Awards ceremony to thunderous applause.
Johnson was born Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, near the Virginia border.
Johnson taught at black public schools before becoming one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools in 1939.
In 1953, she started working at the all-black West Area Computing unit at what was then called Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton.
Johnson is survived by two of her three daughters, six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, said Mr Reavis, the family lawyer.
Johnson spent her later years encouraging students to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Looking back, Johnson said she had little time to worry about being treated unequally.
“My dad taught us ‘You are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better,'” Johnson told NASA in 2008.
“I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.”
Hidden Figures was nominated for three Oscars in 2017. (Supplied: IMDB/Twentieth Century Fox)