An inspirational “Hidden Figure” and a key
player in sending the first humans to the moon, mathematician Katherine Johnson
died February 24 at the age of 101.
Born in West Virginia in 1918, her aptitude for math was evident at an early
age. In 1953, she took a job at NASA’s predecessor NACA, the National Advisory
Committee for Aeronautics, at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. There,
she joined a group of other African-American women known as “computers” who
performed calculations for the space program before electronic computers went
During the Space Race era, Johnson
performed essential calculations of flight trajectories, including the 1961
flight of the first American in space, Alan Shepard. Famously, at the personal
request of astronaut John Glenn, she checked by hand the calculations for his
1962 orbit of Earth, although NASA had begun using electronic computers by then.
“If she says they’re good,’” Glenn reportedly said, “then I’m ready to go.”
Unlike the astronauts whose flight paths
she calculated, Johnson worked in relative obscurity. But that changed after a 2016 book and film,
both titled Hidden Figures, profiled Johnson and other black women at NASA (SN: 12/23/16). Almost overnight, Johnson
became a household name and a celebrated figure of science. Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, had NASA buildings named after her
and even had a LEGO figure
created in her likeness.