Katherine Johnson, pioneering NASA mathematician of 'Hidden Figures' fame, dies at 101

Katherine Johnson, whose career making vital calculations for NASA was immortalized in the 2016 book and movie "Hidden Figures," has died at 101.

Johnson joined what was then called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1953 as a so-called human computer at the agency's Langley, Virginia, office. The office was still segregated when she joined, and she worked with other black mathematicians in the West Area Computing section. The agency became NASA in 1958, and Johnson remained at the agency until she retired, in 1986.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced her death today (Feb. 24) and said it occurred earlier in the morning. "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 color in the universal human quest to explore space," he said in a statement. "Her dedication and skill as a mathematician helped put humans on the moon."

Video: NASA remembers icon Katherine Johnson
NASA's real 'Hidden Figures' of space history

"At NASA, we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her," Bridenstine said. "We will continue building on her legacy."

When Johnson joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, her work focused on flight tests and plane crashes. When the agency shifted to focus on spaceflight, Johnson did too. Her calculations mapped the trajectory of Alan Shepard's historic 1961 flight, during which he became the first American to reach space. She also verified the trajectory for John Glenn's first orbital flight.

Johnson made similar trajectory calculations during the Apollo era. She also worked on emergency procedures, which were vital during the Apollo 13 mission of 1970, when an explosion on the main spacecraft required astronauts to use the lunar module as a lifeboat to return to Earth. Her math also supported the space shuttle and plans for Mars missions.

Johnson and her colleagues became famous with the publication of "Hidden Figures" (William Morrow and Co., 2016) by Margot Lee Shetterly and the release of the blockbuster movie of the same name, which starred Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer as Johnson and her colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan.

As both the book and the movie showed, Johnson and her colleagues had to withstand discrimination based on their gender and skin color alike. One poignant scene in the movie was inspired by Johnson's time working away from the West Area Computing section, with white colleagues, when she has to explain to her white, male supervisor where she keeps disappearing to — the only restrooms she was allowed to use, half a mile away.

The release of "Hidden Figures" made Johnson one of the most celebrated black women in space science and a hero for those calling for action against sexism and racism in science and engineering.

Katherine Johnson, pictured here at NASA's Langley Research Center, where she worked as a computer and mathematician from 1953 to 1986. (Image credit: NASA)

In 2015, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the most prestigious civilian awards in the U.S., from President Barack Obama. The NASA Langley facility at which Johnson worked renamed a building in her honor in 2016, and she received a standing ovation at the Oscars the next year, when "Hidden Figures" was nominated for best picture.

In 2019, Johnson told her own story for young readers in a book called "Reaching for the Moon" (Atheneum Books for Young Readers). 

"Every time engineers would hand me their equations to evaluate, I would do more than what they'd asked. I'd try to think beyond their equations. To ensure that I'd get the answer right, I needed to understand the thinking behind their choices and decisions," she wrote.

"I didn't allow their side-eyes and annoyed looks to intimidate or stop me. I also would persist even if I thought I was being ignored. If I encountered something I didn't understand, I'd just ask. … I just ignored the social customs that told me to stay in my place."

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Meghan Bartels
Senior Writer

Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.