Famous NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose life was featured in the film Hidden Figures, died on Monday at the age of 101, according to the space agency.
The math genius helped determine the course of the Apollo 11 flight that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon back in July of 1969. However, she received little recognition until the release of the 2016 Oscar-nominated film that followed the stories of three black female pioneers at NASA. Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson rounded out the trio.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine expressed admiration for Johnson’s courage and credited her for “the milestones we could not have reached without her.” To Bridenstine, Johnson is “an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten.”
Johnson and a co-worker were the first to determine the parameters of the suborbital space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut to travel in space.
In 2015, then-US president Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
“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,” said Bridenstine.
During the early phase of her career, Johnson used little more than a pen, a piece of paper, and a slide rule to complete the calculations on which unimaginably dangerous missions relied.
Along with her colleagues, she mapped out John Glenn’s trajectory, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. Prior to the mission, Glenn requested that Johnson personally review the computer-generated figures on a mechanical calculating machine – an intensive job that took her one and a half days to complete.
Johnson often reminded her students that “some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering, and technology.”
She also emphasized that “there will always, always be mathematics.”
At first, black women faced isolation and prejudice in offices, canteens, and bathrooms. However, their talents earned them a level of acceptance at NASA that was ahead of its time in America.
In 2010, over a decade after her retirement from NASA, Johnson described NASA as “a very professional organization” that judged employees on talent rather than race or color.