Mathematician Katherine Johnson, one of the first African American women to work as a NASA scientist who manually calculated the trajectory of spaceflights during the 1960s space race with Russia, has died.
She was 101.
A NASA employee for 35 years, Katherine Johnson’s major contributions to the space program were memorialized in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures.”
She was portrayed in the movie by actress Taraji P. Henson.
Johnson, who was initially rejected by NASA when she first applied, was tasked by Glenn to check the computer’s work by redoing all the math done by a computer that had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission.
And, as part of the pre-flight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl” to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer … by hand. Glenn famously said, “If she says they’re good then I’m ready to go.” The mission went on without a hitch.
“Hidden Figures” was released in 2016 to much acclaim. It earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Octavia Spencer was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Johnson was honored at the 2017 Oscars.
Johnson, who retired in 1986 from NASA, authored or co-authored 26 research projects. She recalled her greatest contribution to space exploration the calculations that helped with Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander — the moon-orbiting Command Service Module.
She was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She was famous before even her NASA days … she was one of 3 black students handpicked to integrate West Virginia’s graduate school. Johnson graduated from West Virginia State College in 1937 … earning degrees in mathematics and French.