Feb 24, 2020 - Science

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, depicted in "Hidden Figures," dies at 101

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (C) and director Ezra Edelman (R) and producer Caroline Waterlow
NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (C) with producer Caroline Waterlow (L) and director Ezra Edelman (R) of "Hidden Figures." Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose calculations helped astronauts reach orbit and eventually land on the Moon, died Monday at 101.

Why it matters: Her work, dramatized in the 2016 film "Hidden Figures," helped to create some of the agency's core mathematical principles behind manned space travel.

  • While she wasn't the first black woman to work as a NASA mathematician, her barrier-breaking story was key in recognizing the achievements that African American scientists contributed to spaceflight during the 1960s.

The big picture: Johnson's work "was overshadowed in the popular imagination by the life-risking astronauts whose flights she calculated, and to a lesser extent by the department heads under whom she served," the Washington Post writes.

  • Former President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
  • She downplayed the importance of her role in the early years of the space program after the release of "Hidden Figures," telling the Post in 2017 that she was "just doing [her] job."

The bottom line, via the lead sentence of the New York Times' obituary: "They asked Katherine Johnson for the Moon, and she gave it to them."

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