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NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson (1918–2020), NASA’s “Hidden Figures” hero

by Linnea Crowther

Katherine Johnson was a mathematician who calculated orbital mechanics for the first crewed spaceflights for NASA. The story of her struggles as one of the African American women working as computers at NASA in the 1960s was made famous in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures,” which starred Taraji P. Henson as Johnson. Johnson’s calculations of the trajectory and launch window for Alan Shepard’s historic 1961 spaceflight were crucial to the success of the mission. She later helped calculate the trajectory for Apollo 11’s 1969 Moon landing, and she worked on the Space Shuttle program and on plans for a mission to Mars.

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Died: February 24, 2020 (Who else died on February 24?)


Details of death: Died at the age of 101.

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Widely honored: Especially since the release of “Hidden Figures” and the 2016 nonfiction book about the NASA computers it was based on, Johnson received many awards and honors for her groundbreaking work. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2019 she was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal — the two highest civilian honors in the United States. A building at NASA’s Langley Research Center is named after Johnson, and at least one elementary school has been named for her. She was listed on the BBC’s 2016 “100 Women” list of influential women worldwide, and Mattel released a Barbie doll based on her.

Notable quote: “Girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing. Sometimes they have more imagination than men.”

What people said about her: “In her 33 years at NASA, Katherine was a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science and reach for the stars.” —President Obama, as he presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom

“I’m so grateful that she got her flowers when she was alive, even though it took a lifetime. Thank you, Katherine Johnson. Black girls can do anything. Rest in the power you gave us.” —activist Brittany Packnett

“the NASA family will never forget Katherine Johnson’s courage and the milestones we could not have reached without her. Her story and her grace continue to inspire the world.” —NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine

“I am so happy that Katherine Johnson lived long & finally received the name recognition she so richly deserved.” —activist Maya Wiley

“Katherine Johnson outsmarted, outworked, and hustled her way into the NASA boys club. I know a thing or two about being the only person of color in a room — and it takes tenacity. Rest in peace, Katherine, your legacy lives on in generations of STEM women of color.” —U.S. Senate candidate Jaime Harrison

Full obituary: The Washington Post

Related lives:

  • Women of NASA
  • Vera Rubin (1928–2016), astrophysicist who confirmed the existence of dark matter
  • John Nash (1928–2015), mathematician portrayed in “A Beautiful Mind”
  • Mildred Rebstock (1919–2011), chemist who engineered the world’s first mass-produced synthetic antibiotic

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