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Katherine Johnson, the inspiration for the film Hidden Figures, poses in the press room at the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles in February 2017. Johnson, a mathematician on early space missions who was portrayed in film “Hidden Figures,” about pioneering black female aerospace workers, died Monday.(Jordan Strauss)

‘Hidden Figure’ at NASA during 1960’s Space Race Dies at 101

A life well-lived

Katherine Johnson, a former NASA mathematician during its’ earliest days, as well as the main protagonist in “Hidden Figures”, the 2016 hit film about pioneering black female NASA workers, has passed away at the age of 101. She passed away from natural causes at a retirement community in Virginia on Monday, according to the Johnson family attorney, Donyale Y.H. Reavis. 

NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said in a statement that 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.”

Johnson was a “computer”, calculating rocket trajectories and earth orbits in NASA’s earliest ventures into space, doing all of her work by hand. Her work originally focused on airplanes and other research before shifting to Project Mercury, the first human space program in the United States. Later on in 1961, she successfully projected trajectory calculations and analysis for the Freedom 7, Alan Shepard’s mission that was the first to carry an American into space. In the following year, she confirmed the calculations of an IBM 7090, a NASA computer, by hand, assisting in John Glenn’s first orbits around Earth.

“The wonderful gift that Katherine Johnson gave us is that her story shined a light on the stories of so many other people,”said Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of ‘Hidden Figures’, on Monday. 

“She gave us a new way to look at black history, women’s history and American history.”

Johnson also contributed to the Apollo Moon Missions, helping the Lunar Lander rendevous with the orbiting command service module. She then worked with the Space Shuttle Program, eventually retiring from her historic career in 1986. 

In 2015, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. 


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