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 mainstream.
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.