NASA research mathematician and famed ‘hidden figure’ Katherine Johnson passed away on Monday at the age of 101, the Washington Post reports.
NASA confirmed the death of the trailblazing hero via tweet, noting “We’re saddened by the passing of celebrated #HiddenFigures mathematician Katherine Johnson. Today, we celebrate her 101 years of life and honor her legacy of excellence that broke down racial and social barriers.”
Johnson worked her way through the ranks of NASA as a “colored computer” who worked on calculations for several space missions during a time when computer were still not trusted. At the time – during the 1950s and 1960s racial segregation was still the norm, but Johnson persisted and thrived.
She most famously verified the results given by computers to calculate the orbit for John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, something that Glenn himself demanded. Glenn told engineers to “get the girl” (aka Johnson) to run the numbers before his mission. That flight ended in success and Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth.
Johnson was also involved in the calculations of Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission the year before, which made him the first American in space.
Despite her trailblazing genius, Johnson was, for a time, mostly forgotten, and left as a part of hidden history. Then, in 2016, the best-selling book Hidden Figures, shortly followed by a star-studded, award-winning movie of the same name, shot Johnson and her name and contributions into the limelight.
In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honor in the United States. In 2017, NASA dedicated a computational research facility in her honor, and in December 2018 she was inducted into NASA’s Paul E. Garber First Flight Society Shrine.
Last February, NASA renamed a facility that houses programs that contribute “to the safety and success of NASA’s highest-profile missions by assuring the software on those missions performs correctly,” after her.