Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician And An Inspiration For 'Hidden Figures,' Dies

Feb 24, 2020
Originally published on February 24, 2020 4:55 pm

Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who was one of NASA's human "computers" and an unsung hero of the space agency's early days, died Monday. She calculated the flight path for America's first crewed space mission and moon landing, and she was among the women profiled in the book and movie Hidden Figures. She was 101.

Her death was announced by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

"The NASA family will never forget Katherine Johnson's courage and the milestones we could not have reached without her," Bridenstine wrote on Twitter. "Her story and her grace continue to inspire the world."

Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918. As a young girl, she was fascinated by numbers and it was clear early on she was gifted. She graduated from high school at 14 and finished college with degrees in math and French from historically black West Virginia State College. She initially became a teacher but, in 1953, took a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics — the agency that would become NASA. "Everybody there was doing research," she recalled in later years, "You had a mission and you worked on it."

She was one of a handful of African American women hired to do computing in the guidance and navigation department at Langley's Research Center in Virginia. The women battled both racism and sexism. As Johnson told public television station WHRO in 2011, none of it held her back: "I just happened to be working with guys and when they had briefings, I asked permission to go. And they said, 'Well, the girls don't usually go.' and I said, 'Well, is there a law?' They said, 'No.' So then my boss said, 'Let her go.' "

And she never stopped going, using her extraordinary computing skills to move up the NASA chain. She hand-computed the trajectory of the first manned launch and continued to be important to the astronauts.

Johnson at her desk at NASA Langley Research Center with a globe, or "Celestial Training Device."
NASA

Before John Glenn flew Friendship 7 in 1962, becoming the first American to orbit Earth, he asked Johnson to double-check the math of the "new electronic" computations. "But when he got ready to go, he said, 'Call her. And if she says the computer is right, I'll take it,' " she recalled.

Margot Lee Shetterly wrote the book Hidden Figures and said that Glenn considered Johnson's calculations part of his preflight checklist. "So the astronaut who became a hero looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success," she told NPR in 2016.

Johnson did calculations for the first moon landing, and later for the space shuttle program. President Barack Obama awarded her the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, at a 2015 White House ceremony. "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," Obama said.

Johnson's accomplishments continued to be highlighted later in life. She got a standing ovation at the Academy Awards in 2017 and NASA named the Computational Research Facility in her honor.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

A woman who made key contributions to NASA in the agency's early days has died. Katherine Johnson was a black mathematician who came to be known as one of the space agency's human computers. She was 101 years old. Johnson calculated the flight path of many of NASA's most notable missions. She was featured in the book and then later the Oscar-nominated movie "Hidden Figures." She was played by actress Taraji P. Henson.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIDDEN FIGURES")

TARAJI P HENSON: (As Katherine Johnson) I would like to attend today's briefing.

KEVIN COSTNER: (As Al Harrison) And why's that?

HENSON: (As Katherine Johnson) Colonel Glenn launches in a few weeks. We don't have the math figured out yet.

JIM PARSONS: (As Paul Stafford) She is a woman. There is no protocol for a woman attending these meetings.

COSTNER: (As Al Harrison) OK. I get that part, Paul. But within these walls, who - who makes the rules?

HENSON: (As Katherine Johnson) You, sir. You are the boss. You just have to act like one.

KING: NPR's Russell Lewis has this remembrance.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Katherine Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918. As a young girl, she was fascinated by numbers, and it was clear she was gifted. Johnson graduated from high school at age 14 and finished college with degrees in math and French. She first became a teacher, but then, in 1953, took a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the agency that would become NASA. It was not easy then being black and living in the Deep South, but she got on with her job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHERINE JOHNSON: Everybody there was doing research. You had a mission, and you worked on it.

LEWIS: Johnson was one of a handful of African American women hired to do computing in the guidance and navigation department at Langley's (ph) Research Center in Virginia. Not only did they battle through racism but sexism, too. As Johnson told public television station WHRO in 2011, none of it held her back.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHRO BROADCAST)

JOHNSON: I just happened to be working with guys. And when they had briefings on it, I asked permission to go. And they said, well, the girls don't usually go. Well, I said, well, is there a law? They said, no. So then my boss said, let her go.

LEWIS: And she never stopped going, using her extraordinary computing skills to move up the NASA chain. She hand-computed the trajectory of the first man launch and continued to be important to the astronauts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN GLENN: Now this is Friendship 7 at 60 degrees right yaw and holding temporarily - over.

LEWIS: Before John Glenn flew Friendship 7 to become the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, he asked her to double-check the math of the new electronic computations. Margot Lee Shetterly authored the book "Hidden Figures" and told NPR in 2016 that Glenn considered Johnson's calculations part of his preflight checklist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY: So the astronaut who became a hero looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.

LEWIS: Johnson did calculations for Apollo 11, the first moon landing, and, later, the shuttle program. President Obama awarded her the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, at a 2015 White House ceremony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: 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.

LEWIS: While much of Katherine Johnson's work was unknown to many, her accomplishments continued to be highlighted later in life. She got a standing ovation at the Academy Awards in 2017, and NASA named the Computational Research Facility in her honor.

Russell Lewis, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.