Katherine Johnson, a famous, ground-breaking African American mathematician that made significant impacts to the U.S. space program, has died. She was 101.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement, “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. 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. Her dedication and skull 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…At NASA, we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her. We will continue building on her legacy and work tirelessly to increase opportunities for everyone who has something to contribute toward the ongoing work of raising the bar of human potential.”
Vice President Mike Pence, who serves as Chair to the National Space Council, said, “today our nation lost a great American space pioneer, the original Hidden Figure, Katherine G. Johnson. In the face of adversity and racial discrimination, she made incalculable contributions to America’s space program and pushed the frontier of human knowledge by her brilliance.”
The award winning motion picture, Hidden Figures, was based on her life. The film stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson. Janelle Monáe plays the role of Mary Jackson, who as an aerospace engineer, worked to analyze data from wind tunnel experiments at the Theoretical Aerodynamics Branch of the Subsonic-Transonic Aerodynamics Division at Langley. Octavia Spencer plays the role of early computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan who climbs responsibilities at Langley’s computing department even though the Virginia-based center was segregated. Other actors in the film include Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons, all who take on various roles in NASA’s early days.
When one thinks of NASA’s adventures into space, to the moon, and beyond, often high-tech gadgetry and awesome computing power come to mind. Rarely does one think of the human power involved in these missions to leave Earth, especially in an era decades before personal computers and smartphones. Hidden Figures not only reveals the hidden humans in the mix with these missions, but their plight against backwards social mores that frustratingly held back humans that wanted to push humankind forward. Set against the backdrop of a segregated South in which women were treated as second class citizens and African American women thought of as even less, brilliant performances by Henson, Monáe, and Spencer showcase what these three women really were: American heroes. Despite the ugly institutional racism that was the norm of the era there, these three women had their own societal moonshot to aim for the benefit of America and humankind in space.
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Thank you QUEEN #KatherineJohnson for sharing your intelligence, poise, grace and beauty with the world! Because of your hard work little girls EVERYWHERE can dream as big as the MOON!!! Your legacy will live on FORVER AND EVER!!! You ran so we could fly!!! I will forever be honored to have been apart of bringing your story to life. You/your story was hidden and thank GOD you are #hiddennomore? God bless your beautiful family. I am so honored to have sat and broke bread with you all. My thoughts and prayers are with you! #RIHKatherineJohnson #representationmatters ?????????
Born August 26, 1918, in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson went on to graduate from West Virginia State College with highest honors in 1937. Even before college, she was accomplished. She was one of three black students handpicked to be integrated into West Virginia’s graduate schools. After attending graduate school and working as a public school teacher, she was hired in 1953 by what today is known as NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, but then was called the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. She retired from the center in 1986.
A statement released by NASA sums-up Johnson: “NASA mathematician, trailblazer in the quest for racial equality, contributor to our nation’s first triumphs in human spaceflight and champion of STEM education, Katherine G. Johnson stands among NASA’s most inspirational figures.”