Pioneering NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson dies at 101

National

HAMPTON, Va. (AP/WAVY) — Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who worked on NASA’s early space missions and was portrayed in the film “Hidden Figures,” about pioneering black female aerospace workers, has died.

In a Monday morning tweet, NASA said it celebrates her 101 years of life and her legacy of excellence and breaking down racial and social barriers.

“NASA is deeply saddened by the loss of a leader from our pioneering days, and we send our deepest condolences to the family of Katherine Johnson” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “Ms. Johnson helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of color in the universal human quest to explore space … we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her.”

Johnson was one of the so-called “computers” who calculated rocket trajectories and earth orbits by hand during NASA’s early years.

Until 1958, Johnson and other black women worked in a racially segregated computing unit at what is now called Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Johnson focused on airplanes and other research at first. But her work at NASA’s Langley Research Center eventually shifted to Project Mercury, the nation’s first human space program.

“Our office computed all the (rocket) trajectories,” Johnson told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in 2012. “You tell me when and where you want it to come down, and I will tell you where and when and how to launch it.”

In 1961, Johnson did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 Mission, the first to carry an American into space. The next year, she manually verified the calculations of a nascent NASA computer, an IBM 7090, which plotted John Glenn’s orbits around the planet.

Born in August 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson was often overlooked until the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures,” which highlighted the work and challenges she, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Dr. Christine Darden faced while working at Langley.

Actress Taraji P. Henson portrayed Johnson in the movie.

At age 97, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

FILE – In this Nov. 24, 2015 photo, Willie Mays, right, looks on as President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

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