Katherine Johnson, a trailblazing NASA mathematician and scientist whose story was depicted in the film Hidden Figures, has died.
Johnson was one of the first black women hired by the space agency. She worked as a "human computer" doing trajectory analysis for numerous expeditions, including the first crewed US spaceflight in 1961 and the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon.
The space agency confirmed her death on Monday morning. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called her "an American hero" whose "pioneering legacy will never be forgotten."
Born in West Virginia in 1918, Johnson was one of three students chosen to integrate the state's graduate schools.
She left school to have three daughters, later getting a job as a mathematician at the agency that became NASA. She worked there for 33 years, authoring or coauthoring 26 research papers.
NASA's biography of Johnson highlighted her role in the 1962 mission when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth:
The computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, from blast off to splashdown, but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts. As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”— Katherine Johnson — to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. “If she says they’re good,” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success, and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space.
In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor.
The following year, the nonfiction book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly was published, telling the stories of Johnson and the other black women NASA scientists and their role in the space race. Taraji P. Henson played Johnson in the Oscar-nominated film adaption.
"I like the stars, and the stories we were telling, and it was a joy to contribute to the literature that was going to come out,” Johnson said during the opening of the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at NASA's Langley facility in Virginia in 2017. "But little did I think it would go this far.”