Mathematician and NASA legend Katherine Johnson has died at age 101, The New York Times reports. The inspiration for the 2016 movie Hidden Figures, Johnson was best known for calculating the equations that sent the first astronauts to the moon and breaking barriers in science and technology as a black woman in the civil rights era.
Katherine Johnson's knack for numbers was apparent from a young age. She was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on August 26, 1918, and she enrolled directly into the second grade as soon as she was old enough to go to school. She graduated college summa cum laude at age 18 after taking every math class that was available to her.
In the 1950s, NASA hired Johnson to be one of the women "computers" tasked with crunching the numbers that were vital to getting missions off the ground. She was personally responsible for confirming the equations that sent astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1962. After requesting that Johnson double-check the computer's math by hand, he reportedly said, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”
Her biggest job was working on the Apollo 11 mission. Johnson worked closely with NASA's engineers to calculate when and where to launch the first manned shuttle to the moon, fully aware that even a tiny error could lead to a national tragedy. On July 20, 1969, the first astronauts landed on the moon, thanks in part to her computing power.
As a black woman working in a primarily white male-dominated field in the 1960s, Johnson's contributions to space history went unrecognized for years. She lived long enough to become one of the few marginalized figures in science to receive some much-deserved, albeit overdue, accolades. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2016, her work at NASA was depicted in the Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures. Johnson also nurtured a love of knowledge throughout her life, earning an honorary doctorate degree from West Virginia University more than 75 years after dropping out of graduate school.
Johnson died on the morning of Monday, February 24, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine shared on Twitter. He said in the announcement, "She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten."
[h/t The New York Times]