Real-Life 'Hidden Figures' Mathematician Katherine Johnson Dead at 101

Katie Ramirez
February 27, 2020

This morning, Katherine Johnson, the former NASA mathematician whose calculations played a critical role in the early successes of the USA space program, passed away at 101 years old.

"We are saddened to learn of the passing of Katherine G. Johnson, a woman whose service to NASA and our nation will not be forgotten". The bestselling-book-turned-Oscar-nominated-movie Hidden Figures brought Johnson's legacy to the big screen in 2016, in which she was portrayed by Taraji P Henson.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award in the U.S. Darden, who sat down with WAVY's Laura in 2018, is 77 and still lives in Hampton Roads.

"From honorary doctorates to the 1967 NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team award (for pioneering work in the field of navigation problems supporting the five spacecraft that orbited and mapped the moon in preparation for the Apollo program) Katherine Johnson has led a life positively littered with honors", NASA writes. A building at NASA's Langley Research Center is named after Johnson, and at least one elementary school has been named for her.

WAAY 31 got the chance to speak with people who knew her and they said Johnson's legacy will live on now and for many years to come. Her former colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan passed away in 2005 and 2008 respectively.

Johnson made the transition to the computer era and worked on the shuttle program while writing or co-writing 26 research reports before retiring in 1986, NASA said. John Glenn was preparing for his orbital flight and was reluctant to trust the new computers' calculation of his orbital trajectory. Then-US President Barack Obama later cited her in his State of the Union address as an example of the country's spirit of discovery.

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Johnson started working as a teacher but following an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in the defense industry, NACA hired her in 1953 to work on technical projects for the agency. She worked primarily as a human-computer, checking the work of white male counterparts and even the results from digital computers.

Thanks to her astounding math skills, Johnson was accepted into West Virginia State College when she was just 15.

There aren't too many people on the face of the planet that have accomplished what Katherine Johnson was able to accomplish.

"My dad taught us, 'You are as good as anybody in this town, but you're no better, '" she told Nasa in 2008.

The White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, native, who was born on August 26, 1918, was one of three Black students chosen to integrate West Virginia State College, eventually earning degrees in mathematics and French in 1937. In 1939, she was asked to be one of three black students-and the only woman-to integrate into West Virginia University. "Her story and her grace continue to inspire the world".

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