Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who inspired the 2016 film Hidden Figures, died today at 101.
Johnson was one of our honorees at LSC’s Genius Gala 6.0 in 2017, where she was celebrated as a “techno-optimist” – a brilliant technologist inventing a better future for all of us.
A mathematical and language whiz, Johnson graduated from high school at 14 and college at 18. In 1939 she became the first African-American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University in Morgantown.
In the pre-computer days at NASA, Johnson calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths of the first manned space missions. Even after NASA started relying on the IBM 7090 electronic computer, John Glenn and other astronauts refused to board the rockets until Johnson hand-checked the flight calculations. Her calculations and strategic thinking helped get the Apollo 13 astronauts safely back to Earth.
Later in her NASA career, she worked on the Space Shuttle and a planned mission to Mars. The story of Johnson and other female African-American mathematicians at NASA is memorialized in the film Hidden Figures, which received a 2017 Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
Johnson is the recipient of the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, the NASA Langley Research Center named a new 40,000-square-foot wing the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility on the occasion of the 55th anniversary of astronaut Alan Shepard’s historic rocket launch and splashdown, which Johnson helped achieve.
At LSC’s Genius Gala in 2017, friends of the Science Center David Blaine and John Urschel presented Johnson's award to her daughter, Joylette Goble Hylick.
Accepting the award, Hylick said: “I just wish my mother were 40 years younger, because you wouldn’t have been able to get her out of here.”
Speaking of her mother's love for education, Hylick said "She's most happy when children are encouraged and inspired...if all kids had teachers like my mother, it'd be a better world."
Our hearts go out to her family. Thank you, Katherine Johnson, for inspiring future generations and paving the way toward a better future for all of us.