NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose calculations helped get the first Americans to space and back safely, died today at the age of 101. Among her many accomplishments, she completed the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s 1961 suborbital flight, which was the first time the US sent a human into space.
Johnson’s work over 33 years propelled many of America’s breakthroughs in space exploration, including Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” on the Moon. But the contributions she made weren’t recognized until decades later. Johnson was made to work in a segregated wing with other black women mathematicians when she started at NASA predecessor The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1953. Yet, her work was so integral to NASA’s early missions that John Glenn asked her to double-check computer calculations for his flight before becoming the first US astronaut to orbit Earth in 1962.
“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,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “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.”
Johnson’s groundbreaking contributions were recognized in 2015 when she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed on civilians, from President Barack Obama. The bestselling-book-turned-Oscar-nominated-movie Hidden Figures brought Johnson’s legacy to the big screen in 2016, in which she was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson. NASA also named a building in her honor in 2017.
In an interview, she was asked what she’d tell young engineers working in the building that bears her name. “Do your best, but like it,” Johnson said. “If you don’t like it, shame on you.”
“I like work. I like the stars and the stories we were telling and it was a joy to contribute to the literature that was going to be coming out. But little did I think it would go this far,” Johnson said in the 2017 interview.
“If you think your job is pressure-packed, [Johnson’s] meant that forgetting to carry the ‘1’ might send somebody floating off into the solar system,” Obama said when Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Katherine was a pioneer who broke the boundaries of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science and reach for the stars,” he said.