NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson, Depicted in “Hidden Figures,” Dead at 101

Johnson was best known for her work on John Glenn's 1962 orbital spaceflight

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (C) and director Ezra Edelman (R) and producer Caroline Waterlow (L), winners of Best Documentary Feature for 'O.J.: Made in America' pose in the press room at the 89th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Dan MacMedan/Getty Images)
NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (C) and director Ezra Edelman (R) and producer Caroline Waterlow (L), winners of Best Documentary Feature for 'O.J.: Made in America' pose in the press room at the 89th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Dan MacMedan/Getty Images)
By Bonnie Stiernberg / February 24, 2020 11:39 am

Pioneering NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson has passed away at the age of 101, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced Monday morning (Feb. 24). Johnson’s story was depicted in the 2016 Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures, where she was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson.

“She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten,” Bridenstine wrote. “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.”

Johnson was a trailblazer both as a woman and as a person of color. She began working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1953 and in 1961, she did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s mission Freedom 7, which was America’s first human spaceflight.

She is best known, however, for her 1962 work on John Glenn’s orbital spaceflight. As NASA points out, “Astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts. As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to ‘get the girl’ — Johnson — to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. ‘If she says they’re good,’ Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, ‘then I’m ready to go.’”

Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, by Barack Obama in 2015, when she was 97 years old — something Bridenstine calls “a well-deserved recognition.” You can read Bridenstine’s full statement about Johnson’s passing below.

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