Katherine Johnson’s intelligence and ambition lifted all of us up — straight into the stars.
The famed mathematician, whose name is now widely recognized thanks to the 2017 hit movie “Hidden Figures,” died Monday at the age of 101.
Her legacy is unmatched. “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,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.
She is perhaps best known, thanks to the feature film, for producing the calculations that resulted in the first successful manned space mission in 1962. But Johnson’s trailblazing began early, when she was selected to be one of the first three black students ever to attend an integrated school in West Virginia. She studied math there while growing up — quickly establishing herself as a prodigy among her peers — then became a teacher when she reached adulthood.
After taking time off to start a family, Johnson landed a job at what would become NASA, and spent several years analyzing flight data. During that time, she made history again as the first woman to receive credit as the co-author of a researched report. Then, in 1962, Johnson played a critical role in getting astronaut John Glenn into — and safely back from — space.
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In all, she was a crucial part of several space flights, and authored or co-authored 26 reports before retiring in 1986. But decades after leaving NASA, Johnson’s story continued to inspire future generations of girls and women in STEM — and in 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Through the ups and downs of breaking down gender and racial barriers, Johnson said she “loved going to work every single day.” The women in STEM fields who came behind her — and countless others — are eternally grateful she did.