Enlarge /. Katherine Johnson is sitting at her desk with a globe or "Celestial Training Device".
Katherine Johnson, a pioneering mathematician best known for her contributions to NASA's manned space program and later made famous by the film Hidden Figures, died on Monday. She was 101 years old.
"At NASA, we will never forget her courage and leadership, and the milestones we could not have achieved without her," said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. "We will continue to build on their legacy and work tirelessly to improve opportunities for anyone who can contribute to ongoing work to raise the bar for human potential."
Johnson was born on August 26, 1918 in rural West Virginia and showed an early talent for mathematics. "I counted everything," she said late in the life of her formative years. "I counted the steps to the street, the steps to the church, the number of dishes and cutlery items I washed … everything that was counted could, I did. "
When West Virginia decided in 1939 to integrate its graduate schools, Johnson and two male students were chosen as the first black students to be offered places at the state's flagship school, West Virginia University. Katherine left her teaching job and enrolled in the math program.
After the launch of the Sputnik spacecraft by the Soviet Union in 1957, Johnson supported some of the engineers who founded the Space Task Group in 1958, which turned into NASA. At the new space agency, Johnson performed the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard's flight in May 1961, the first time that an American flew into space.
Most importantly, in 1962, she performed the critical calculations that put John Glenn into safe orbit during the first orbital mission of a U.S. astronaut. NASA engineers had done the calculations on electrical computers, but when someone was needed to validate the calculations, Glenn and the rest of the space agency contacted Johnson. "When she says they're good," Johnson recalled the astronaut and said, "Then I'm ready to go."
Later, Johnson also helped with the calculations that ensured a safe rendezvous between the Apollo Lunar Lander and the command module in orbit around the moon. She also supported the space shuttle program before retiring in 1986. She was known among her colleagues for her accuracy.
In 2015, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award, from President Obama. Your legacy is essential – it helps show the world that the Apollo program was neither exclusively male nor exclusively white. In addition, Johnson has proven that gender and skin color don't matter when it comes to making a brilliant mathematician.