Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who was one of NASA's human "computers" and an unsung hero of the space agency's early days, died Monday. She calculated the flight path for America's first crewed space mission and moon landing, and she was among the women profiled in the book and movie Hidden Figures. She was 101.
Her death was announced by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
"The NASA family will never forget Katherine Johnson's courage and the milestones we could not have reached without her," Bridenstine wrote on Twitter. "Her story and her grace continue to inspire the world."
Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918. As a young girl, she was fascinated by numbers and it was clear early on she was gifted. She graduated from high school at 14 and finished college with degrees in math and French from historically black West Virginia State College. She initially became a teacher but, in 1953, took a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics—the agency that would become NASA. "Everybody there was doing research," she recalled in later years, "You had a mission and you worked on it."
She was one of a handful of African American women hired to do computing in the guidance and navigation department at Langley's Research Center in Virginia. The women battled both racism and sexism. As Johnson told public television station WHRO in 2011, none of it held her back: "I just happened to be working with guys and when they had briefings, I asked permission to go. And they said, 'Well, the girls don't usually go.' and I said, 'Well, is there a law?' They said, 'No.' So then my boss said, 'Let her go.' "