NASA mathematician, Katherine Johnson, who was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the 2016 Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, has passed away at the age of 101, the space agency has revealed. Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson was a brilliant math student at school and it was her calculations that helped America’s first human spaceflight in 1961.
Johnson started working for the NACA (as NASA was known back then) in 1952 which was headed by Dorothy Vaughan (portrayed by Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures). Johnson’s work included providing trajectory analysis that sent the first American, Alan Shepard, to space in 1961.
“At NASA we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine mentioned in a statement. “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.”
She became popular for her work with John Glenn’s 1962 orbital mission, which even inspired the award-nominated film, Hidden Figures. Glenn didn’t trust computers, so he asked engineers to have Johnson double-check the calculations. “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go,” Glenn told the engineers.
Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015, who called her a “pioneer in American space history.”