Katherine Johnson, the venerated NASA mathematician who was depicted in the film “Hidden Figures,” died Monday, NASA said in a tweet. She was 101.
“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,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement.
“At NASA we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her.”
Her groundbreaking contributions to bringing Americans in space were plenty: Johnson worked on the first NASA mission in 1961 to carry an American, Alan Shepard, into space. In 1962, she verified computer calculations that plotted John Glenn’s orbits around earth.
Per NASA, Glenn entrusted Johnson to calculate the trajectories by hand more than the state-of-the-art computers available at the time, which were often prone to breaking down.
Over the course of her 33-year career, Johnson also contributed to Apollo missions, helped the agency transition to computers and went on to win five NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement awards. She retired in 1986.
“I loved going to work every single day,” she told NASA.
Before she began her stint at NASA, she taught at black public schools in Virginia. In her later years, she continued working with students — encouraging them to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Born in West Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in 1918, Johnson made history, per NASA, by becoming the first black woman to integrate the graduate schools at West Virginia University.
In recent years, her accomplishments — and those of black women in NASA — were bolstered by the visibility of the book “Hidden Figures” and the film adaptation starring Taraji P. Henson, playing Johnson, Octavia Spencer, who played Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe, who played Mary Jackson.
The film centered on the racially segregated computing unit at what is now the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, that Johnson and other black women worked at as human “computers” until 1958.
“Hidden Figures” was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and grossed more than $200 million worldwide. At the 2017 Academy Awards Ceremony, Johnson was brought on stage and honored.
President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for civilians, in 2015. Two years later, NASA dedicated a computational research facility in her honor.
Most recently, NASA renamed a building in West Virginia — her home state — after her in 2019 at the urging of a congressional bill signed into law by President Donald Trump.
Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY; Associated Press. Follow Joshua Bote on Twitter: @joshua_bote