Trailblazing NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson dies at 101

Johnson overcame racial and gender discrimination to calculate US space flights

Katherine Johnson, one of the trailblazing mathematicians that helped the US in the space race, has died aged 101, NASA has announced.  

She worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a segregated computing unit, which later became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. 

Her role with NASA was the central narrative in the film Hidden Figures that tells the story of how the US calculated its first flight into space. Actress Taraji P. Henson portrayed Johnson in the movie and paid tribute to her on Instagram. 

"Thank you QUEEN #KatherineJohnson for sharing your intelligence, poise, grace and beauty with the world! Because of your hard work little girls EVERYWHERE can dream as big as the MOON!!! Your legacy will live on FOREVER AND EVER!!! You ran so we could fly," she wrote. 

Johnson was born in 1918, in West Virginia. From an early age, she showed an intense curiosity and skill for mathematics that saw her move ahead of her peers by several grades.

She graduated from college in 1937 with the highest honours and took a teaching role at a black public school in Virginia. She left teaching to start a family with James Goble but returned to work in 1952 when a relative told her about open positions at the all-black NACA laboratory in Langley.

Two weeks into her tenure in the office, she was assigned to a project in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division, which later became a permanent job. 

Johnson had to work in segregation where black employees were forced to use separate bathrooms and were subjected to not only gender discrimination but racial prejudice, despite her growing importance to NASA. 

In 1962 she was an integral part of John Glenn's mission to orbit the Earth. The flight was extremely complex, requiring the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computer in Washinton, Florida and Bermuda.

At the time, the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the hands of computers and Glenn asked the engineers to "get the girl" to run the same number through the same equations that had been by programmed by the computer - but by hand.

"If she says they're good, then I'm ready to go," Glenn said of Johnson. 

Johnson's amazing skill with handwritten equations was explained in Margot Lee Shetterly's 2016 book Hidden Figures, which the film is based.

"Katherine organised herself immediately at her desk, growing phone-book-thick stacks of datasheets a number at a time, blocking out everything except the labyrinth of trajectory equations," Shetterly wrote.

Johnson retired from NASA in 1986 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2015.

She died on 24 Feb 2020. NASA Administrator James Bridenstine said: "Our NASA family is sad to learn the news that Katherine Johnson passed away this morning at 101 years old. She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten."

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