Katherine Johnson, one of NASA Langley’s ‘Hidden Figures,’ dies at 101

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HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — Katherine Johnson, a pioneering Hampton Roads and American icon who helped American astronauts land on the moon, has died at age 101, NASA announced Monday.

“NASA is deeply saddened by the loss of a leader from our pioneering days, and we send our deepest condolences to the family of Katherine Johnson” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement Monday morning. “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 … we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her …”

Johnson was often overlooked until the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures,” which highlighted the work and challenges that she, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Dr. Christine Darden faced while working at NASA Langley in Hampton. Actress Taraji P. Henson portrayed Johnson in the movie.

Born in August 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the groundbreaking African-American mathematician worked as a “human computer” for NASA Langley through the Space Race, including calculating the trajectories for Alan Shepard, the first American to travel into space, and giving the “go-ahead” for John Glenn’s historic mission into orbit.

Johnson’s critical work happened as racially segregating Jim Crow laws were still heavily present in Virginia and rest of the South.

“When the first five black women took their seat in the office in 1943, it was in a segregated office with a ‘colored girls’ bathroom and a table for the ‘colored’ computers,” Author Margot Lee Shetterly, a Hampton native who wrote the book that was adapted into the 2016 movie, told NPR.

Johnson was hired at NASA Langley in 1953, and by the time Glenn prepared to enter orbit in 1962, she already had the reputation for her impeccable mathematics skills.

Glenn famously said he wouldn’t go into space unless Johnson verified the calculations of NASA’s electronic computer. “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go,” Glenn said.

“So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success,” “It really does have to do with us over the course of time sort of not valuing that work that was done by women, however necessary, as much as we might. And it has taken history to get a perspective on that.”

However, Johnson said her greatest achievement came in 1969, when she calculated the trajectory for Apollo 11, helping American astronauts land on the moon.

She also worked on the Space Shuttle, the Earth Resources Satellite, and authored or coauthored 26 research reports before retiring in 1986 after 33 years at Langley.

In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, and was chosen in November to receive to the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor presented by Congress.

Senator Tim Kaine also released a statement saying, “Katherine Johnson helped realize one of humankind’s oldest dreams to reach the stars. Hidden no longer, she will be remembered for her contributions to math and science and forever stand as a role model for those whose talents are not fully recognized because of prejudice. I am deeply saddened to hear of her passing, and my condolences go out to her family, my fellow Virginians, the NASA community, and everyone else who held her as a hero.”

In November, Senators Kaine and Warner’s bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Johnson, Dr. Christine Darden, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson for their work at NASA Langley was signed into law.

Johnson sat down with WAVY’s Marielena Balouris last March for our series honoring pioneering women.

Her advice: “Do your best at all times. That’s the best you can do.”

Johnson’s passing means that Dr. Christine Darden is now the only living “Hidden Figure.” Darden, who sat down with WAVY’s Laura in 2018, is 77 and still lives in Hampton Roads.

This article will be updated.

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