Katherine Johnson Dies at 101

Posted by on Mar 4, 2020 in After the Fact

Did you see the movie Hidden Figures? It was based on a book about three African American women who were instrumental behind the scenes at NASA in the 1960s. Sadly, one of the women featured in the book and movie, Katherine Johnson, passed away last week. She was 101 years old. Here, btw takes a closer look at the life and contributions of this mathematician and unsung hero.

Personal Life

Johnson was born Creola Katherine Coleman in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to a teacher mother and a farmer/handyman father. Her unusual mathematical ability became evident early on: she graduated from high school at the age of 14. In 1937 Creola Coleman received double degrees in math and French from West Virginia State College, where she took every math course that the college offered. She was then 18 years old. In 1953, she left teaching to take a job with the agency that would eventually become NASA, doing math and computing. She married twice and had three children. Later, she became the first African American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University.

A Hidden Hero

At NASA, Johnson’s computational skills quickly became essential. Nicknamed the “human computer,” she hand-computed the first human spaceflight (of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, in 1961), the first moon landing, and astronauts such as John Glenn counted on her to double-check calculations before beginning their missions. In addition to calculating Glenn’s 1962 launch to orbit, she also calculated the 1969 Apollo 11 trajectory to the moon. Johnson spent 33 years at NASA, holding her position from 1953 until her retirement in 1986. Later on, she helped with the early development of the Space Shuttle program and even worked on plans for a mission to Mars. Additionally, during her career, she co-authored 26 scientific papers.

Liftoff of the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission on Feb. 20, 1962.
Liftoff of the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission on Feb. 20, 1962. Glenn asked engineers to get Katherine Johnson to check the orbital equations by hand.

One of the most amazing aspects of her many contributions is that they took place during the height of segregation and sexism when African Americans and women were largely ignored and marginalized in American society.

Awards and Accolades

In addition to having her story become an acclaimed book and movie, Johnson received several prestigious awards and honors during her lifetime. In 1999, she was named Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the nation’s highest honor. In 2016, NASA named its $30 million, 40,000-square-foot Computational Research Facility after her. (It opened in 2017.) At the same ceremony, she also received the Silver Snoopy award for people who have made outstanding contributions to flight safety and mission success. And in 2019, she received the Congressional Gold Medal.

Johnson passed away on February 24, 2020, at a nursing home in Newport News, Virginia.

Dig Deeper Create an annotated time line of key events in Katherine Johnson’s life. Include the dates of her birth and death, as well as her critical contributions to NASA and the awards and honors she later received.