Katherine Johnson, NASA Engineer From 'Hidden Figures', Dead at 101

Katherine Johnson, the NASA engineer whose work was chronicled in the movie Hidden Figures, has died at age 101, the administrator of NASA said. "Our [NASA] family is sad to learn the news that Katherine Johnson passed away this morning at 101 years old," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted on Monday, Feb. 24. "She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten."

"The [NASA] family will never forget Katherine Johnson's courage and the milestones we could not have reached without her," he continued. "Her story and her grace continue to inspire the world."

Bridenstine also shared a statement from NASA.

Johnson was one of the NASA mathematicians depicted in Hidden Figures, the 2016 film that depicted the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. Johnson was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the movie, which also starred Octavia Spencer as mathematician Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as engineer Mary Jackson.

Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918 and quickly showed an aptitude for mathematics. She eventually began working at NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, in 1953 at the Langley laboratory in Virginia, where she analyzed data from flight tests for four years, NASA shares. She also provided math for the 1958 document Notes on Space Technology, did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard's 1961 mission Freedom 7, America's first human spaceflight, and became the first woman in the Flight Research Division to receive credit as an author of a research report for her work with Ted Skopinski on describing an orbital spaceflight in which the landing position of the spacecraft is specified.

She was most known for her work with Glenn's flight, which required the construction of a worldwide communications network. The computers were programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn's Friendship 7 mission, but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the machines' hands, so to speak. So Glenn asked engineers to "get the girl," referring to Johnson, to run the computer equations by hand, and Johnson recalled him saying, "If she says they’re good, then I'm ready to go."


When asked, Johnson named the calculations that helped sync Project Apollo's Lunar Module with the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module as her greatest contribution to space exploration. Johnson retired in 1986 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2015.

Photo Credit: Getty / Christopher Polk