Katherine Johnson — the mathematician portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures” — has died.
NASA announced the pioneering figure died Monday. It was her groundbreaking math work that helped calculate the trajectories for Alan Shepard‘s history-making journey in space. She was also the one who gave the go-ahead for John Glenn‘s mission into orbit.
Johnson, who was initially rejected by NASA when she first applied, was tasked by Glenn to check the computer’s work by redoing all the math done by a computer that had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission.
And, as part of the pre-flight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl” to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer … by hand. Glenn famously said, “If she says they’re good then I’m ready to go.” The mission went on without a hitch.
“Hidden Figures” was released in 2016 to much acclaim. It earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Octavia Spencer was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Johnson was honored at the 2017 Oscars.
Johnson, who retired in 1986 from NASA, authored or co-authored 26 research projects. She recalled her greatest contribution to space exploration the calculations that helped with Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander — the moon-orbiting Command Service Module.
She was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She was famous before even her NASA days … she was one of 3 black students handpicked to integrate West Virginia’s graduate school. Johnson graduated from West Virginia State College in 1937 … earning degrees in mathematics and French.
Johnson arrived at NASA before it was known by those letters. She started at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) in 1953. It became NASA five years later.
In 2015 and at 97 years of age, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.