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Katherine Johnson, trailblazing NASA mathematician and Hidden Figures subject, dies at 101

By Josh Weiss
Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson, a NASA mathematician who proved herself integral to America's fledgeling space program in the 1960s, unfortunately passed away this morning at the age of 101.

As an African American woman, Johnson was a true trailblazer, who shattered barriers for women and people of color in STEM-related fields and occupations. She was recently portrayed by Taraji P. Henson (Empire) in the 2016 historical drama film Hidden Figures.

The sad news of Johnson's passing was confirmed on Twitter by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

"She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten," he wrote across two social media posts. "Ms. Johnson helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space ... as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of color in the universal human quest to explore space. Her dedication and skill as a mathematician helped put humans on the moon and before that, made it possible for our astronauts to take the first steps in space that we now follow on a journey to Mars."

Born on August 18, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson became one of "three [handpicked] black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools," reads NASA's official biography of her.

A prodigy with numbers and calculations, Katherine's job with NASA began in 1958 (it was actually known as NACA at the time), a year after the Soviets launched Sputnik and kicked off the heated space race between the world's biggest Cold War superpowers: the USSR and the United States.

"I was always interested in math. I counted everything as a child — the number of steps up the stairs, the dishes, the steps to church. Those thoughts just came naturally. While I skipped grades in school, my parents made sure I stayed grounded," she told AARP during an interview in 2018.

Katherine Johnson Presidential Medal of Freedom

Among her many, many accomplishments, Katherine was asked to perform calculations that eventually allowed John Glenn to become the first American to orbit the planet in 1962. In fact, it was Glenn (his orbital mission is the one portrayed in Hidden Figures), who personally asked for her to run the numbers that were already being run through a computer.

"John Glenn said, 'What did the girl get? If she agrees with the computer, then I’ll trust the computer,'" Johnson recounted to AARP. "I was able to work out the calculation several places past the decimal point, and he said OK to the mission."

Before that, she did "trajectory analysis" for the United States' first human spaceflight in 1961 with Alan Shepard. Her contributions to the Apollo 11 mission in the summer of 1969 included synching the "Lunar Module with the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module."

After more than three decades of service and nearly 30 published research reports, Johnson retired in 1986 at the age of 68. At the age of 97 in 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a civilian citizen) by President Barack Obama. Just last year, she was given the Congressional Gold Medal.

Johnson received a standing ovation at the 89th Academy Awards after she was introduced by the three main cast members of Hidden Figures: Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe.

"Follow your passion," Johnson also said during her chat with AARP. "Whatever you’re doing, do your best at all times and make it as correct as possible. Work as if someone is watching you. Then you’ll be prepared when an opportunity presents itself. And you’ll have the answers."

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