The pioneering NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson made popular in the film “Hidden Figures” died February 24 in Newport News, Virginia at the age of 101.

Johnson was one of several women of colour who were responsible for calculating rocket trajectories in the early days of NASA and the American Space program. Prior to NASA, the organization based in Hampton, Virginia was called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

In the days before computers, women like Johnson were called “computers” and solved complicated mathematical computations by hand. Johnson once told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, “you tell me when and where you want it to come down, and I will tell you where and when and how to launch it,” including the trajectory analysis for the Freedom 7 piloted by Alan Shepard.

R_1966-L-06717 001By NASA; restored by Adam Cuerden –, Public Domain,

When the new IBM computer produced some questionable results for the Friendship 7 mission with John Glenn, it was Glenn who told NASA officials, “get the girl to check the numbers.” It was Johnson’s calculations that were used for the mission.

Before retiring from NASA in 1986, Johnson worked on the Apollo moon missions and the Space Shuttle.

At the age of 97, President Barack Obama presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Along with the Medal of Freedom, Johnson has had one of the buildings at NASA named after her – Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility,

Johnson was 99 when she joined Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monet on stage at the annual Academy Award ceremonies.

She was born Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. A 10 year old Katherine began attending high school classes and graduated from West Virginia State College with the school’s highest honours at the age of 18 with degrees in mathematics and French.

Limited in her job opportunities, Coleman moved to Virginia and began teaching. But in 1939, she was one of only three students of colour to enroll in a graduate program at West Virginia University – the other two were men – but left after a year to marry James Goble. Goble died in 1956 as a result of cancer leaving Katherine with three girls.

Katherine began working at the National Advisory Comitte for Aeronautics in 1953 as a part of the West Computing Group which led to her later becoming responsible for work with rocket trajectories.

In 1959, she married James Johnson.

In 1960, as a part of the Space Task Group, she became not only the first woman, but the first woman of colour to have her name as one of the author’s of a research paper. She went on to author 25 more such reports.

Predeceased by both of her husbands and one of her daughters, Johnson is survived by two daughters, six grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren.



feature photo credit: By NASA –, Public Domain,