Katherine Johnson, a NASA mathematician whose work played a key role in the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, has died at the age of 101. Before Neil Armstrong’s historic flight, Johnson’s flawless calculations also helped Alan B. Shepard Jr. become the first American in space in 1961, and John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962.
Johnson was born in August 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. A math prodigy, she worked with mentors to find math programs that were sufficiently challenging for her. She began working at NASA in 1953, yet she and her work went largely unrecognized for decades — both because she was a woman, and because she was Black.
Later in life, she became one of most known and celebrated Black female “computers” hired by NASA and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Her work, and the work of her colleagues, inspired 2017’s Hidden Figures, a film based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book of the same name starring Taraji P. Henson as Johnson, and Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe as colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.
“NASA is deeply saddened by the loss of a leader from our pioneering days, and we send our deepest condolences to the family of Katherine Johnson,” said an official statement by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “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.”
“Her dedication and skill as a mathematician helped put humans on the Moon and before that made it possible for our astronauts to take the first steps in space that we now follow on a journey to Mars,” the statement continued. “Her Presidential Medal of Freedom was a well-deserved recognition.” Johnson was awarded the medal by President Barack Obama in 2015, who said at the time that Johnson “refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.”
Bridenstine closed out his statement by promising to build on Johnson’s legacy and “increase opportunities for everyone.” Already, celebrities and politicians have come forward on social media to celebrate that legacy, including Henson, who portrayed Johnson in Hidden Figures. “Thank you QUEEN #KatherineJohnson for sharing your intelligence, poise, grace and beauty with the world!” she wrote. “Because of your hard work little girls EVERYWHERE can dream as big as the MOON!!!”
Henson also expressed gratitude for getting to play such a brilliant and influential woman on the big screen. “I will forever be honored to have been apart of bringing your story to life,” she continued. “You/your story was hidden and thank GOD you are #hiddennomore🚀 God bless your beautiful family. I am so honored to have sat and broke bread with you all. My thoughts and prayers are with you!”
Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, and several others also took to social media to celebrate the life and legacy of the NASA pioneer, calling her an “inspiration for women of color,” a “barrier breaker,” and a true “American hero.”