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NASA 'human computer' Katherine Johnson of 'Hidden Figures' dies at 101

By
Don Jacobson
NASA research mathematician Katherine Johnson is seen at her desk at the Langley Research Center. Born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., she worked at Langley from 1953 until her retirement in 1986, making critical technical contributions which included calculating the trajectory of Alan Shepard's historic 1961 flight. File Photo courtesy NASA/UPI
NASA research mathematician Katherine Johnson is seen at her desk at the Langley Research Center. Born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., she worked at Langley from 1953 until her retirement in 1986, making critical technical contributions which included calculating the trajectory of Alan Shepard's historic 1961 flight. File Photo courtesy NASA/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 24 (UPI) -- Katherine Johnson, the woman hailed as a pioneering mathematician in the United States' space program and depicted in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures, died on Monday. She was 101.

Johnson "was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted.

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A research mathematician, Johnson was tapped in 1953 by NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, to serve as a "human computer" to deduce precise calculations necessary for space flight. Among her first jobs for the manned space program was to calculate the flight trajectory for Alan Shepard, who became the first American in space, in 1961.

The following year, astronaut John Glenn requested that Johnson personally recheck calculations made by then-new electronic computers before he made his historic Friendship 7 flight, during which he became the first American to orbit the Earth.

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Johnson was also a contributor to the Apollo moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program. An African-American woman, she overcame pervasive racial and sexual discrimination of the era. From 1958 until her retirement from NASA in 1986, Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist.

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Four years ago, at age 97, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. The next year she and colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were portrayed in Hidden Figures, a film based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly that honored NASA's "human computers" for the key role they played in the U.S. space program.

Actress Taraji P. Henson, who played Johnson in the film, said shortly before its premiere in 2016 she felt tremendous respect and a sense of responsibility in her portrayal.

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"You are sitting in there and you're waiting for the queen," she said of meeting Johnson. "That's how it felt to come and you greet the queen and she came and it was just like, 'Wow, I am in the presence of a real-life superhero.'"

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Richard "Dick" Thornburgh, former attorney general of the United States and former governor of Pennsylvania, takes a seat at the witness hearing after U.S. Chief Justice nominee Judge John Roberts testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on September 15, 2005. Thornburgh died on December 31 at age 88. Photo by Yuri Gripas/UPI | License Photo
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