Katherine Johnson whose life was portrayed in the movie “Hidden Figures” died on Monday (local time) aged 101. The 2016 movie depicts a real story of female African American mathematicians who joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and led a mission to put the first man on the Moon in the 1950s when racial discrimination was widespread.
“NASA is deeply saddened by the loss of a leader from our pioneering days,” said Jim Bridenstine on the webpage of NASA on Monday. “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. At NASA we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her.”
Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918. She graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia State University with a major in mathematics and became a teacher at a public school. She was also the first African-American woman to attend graduate school in mathematics at West Virginia University until she left school to focus on rearing three children.
Her life changed in 1952 after a long career break. A relative told her about open positions at all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’s Langley laboratory, and she began work at Langley the next year. NASA depended on humans for complicated aerospace calculation as there was no high-functioning electronic computer. Female mathematicians usually took the job as their salary was cheaper. Johnson was one of those African American human computers.
She was initially in charge of aviation analytics and assigned to a space development mission when NASA was launched in 1958. She calculated the parameters of the 1961 suborbital flight of astronaut Alan Shepard, the 1962 orbital flight of John Glenn and precise trajectories of Apollo 11 in 1969. Glenn even asked her to re-check the computer-produced figures on a mechanical calculating machine adopted by NASA.
Johnson continued to participate in missions after she retired in 1986. Her hidden achievements were finally publicized when former U.S. President Barack Obama conferred her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and her dramatic life was made into a movie.