Before there were ever calls for more women in “STEM,” there was the brilliant National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) mathematician Katherine Johnson. Played by Taraji P. Henson in the 2016 Oscar-nominated movie “Hidden Figures,” Johnson died February 24 at age 101, NASA announced via Twitter.
“Ms. 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 in the universal human quest to explore space,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator wrote in a statement on the agency’s website. “Her dedication and skill as a mathematician helped put humans on the moon and before that made it possible for our astronauts to take the first steps in space that we now follow on a journey to Mars. Her Presidential Medal of Freedom was a well-deserved recognition.”
Born August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson seemed destined to break boundaries. In 1939, when the state started integrating its graduate schools, the president of her alma mater, West Virginia State College, selected Johnson to be one of the first three Black students (and the only woman) to attend West Virginia University. In 1952, she joined the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), NASA’s predecessor, and took her talents even higher throughout the decade, as she performed trajectory analysis for the nation’s first human spaceflight, in 1961, for example.
Thanks to author Margot Lee Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures,” which along with the film highlighted the amazing lives of Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, the country is aware of the great contributions that these Black women made, even at a time when segregation was still law in the South.
Below, the nation reacts to Johnson’s death via social media, with many noting the wide path she paved for women:
We’re saddened by the passing of celebrated #HiddenFigures mathematician Katherine Johnson. Today, we celebrate her 101 years of life and honor her legacy of excellence that broke down racial and social barriers: https://t.co/Tl3tsHAfYB pic.twitter.com/dGiGmEVvAW— NASA (@NASA) February 24, 2020
Yesterday, we lost a visionary. Katherine Johnson was a remarkable mathematician at NASA that inspired girls around the world to reach for the stars. Thank you, Katherine, for your immeasurable impact for black women and people of color in STEM. https://t.co/Cdp0uHxZJ7— Girls Inc. (@girls_inc) February 25, 2020
Our American Hero .— Janelle Monáe, Cindi (@JanelleMonae) February 25, 2020
101 years of G E N I U S on Earth . It was an honor to be in your orbit . Sending every ounce of love to your family & loved ones . We are forever thankful to have helped tell your story . 🚀🚀🚀
LONG LIVE QUEEN KATHERINE JOHNSON . #hiddenfigures pic.twitter.com/DQG6XjVdK5
Today, we honor #KatherineJohnson, a mathematician who was one of NASA’s human “computers” and an unsung hero of the space agency’s early days. Her story was brought to screen in the Oscar nominated film #HiddenFigures. She passed yesterday at the age of 101. #BlackHistoryMonth pic.twitter.com/G9XvmkvEeN— Cinema Femme (@cinema_femme) February 25, 2020
“Hidden Figures” reminds us that Computers & Calculators were smart women who knew math. In the early US Space Program, that math was orbital mechanics, led by Katherine Johnson 1918-2020. May the number of those inspired by her story be computationally incalculable. Godspeed. pic.twitter.com/BuMRxOHyQD— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) February 24, 2020
As a child, Katherine Johnson said she “counted everything: the steps, the dishes, the stars in the sky.” As a mathematician, she broke barriers to help reach those stars. Her calculations helped put Americans in space, in orbit, and, finally, on the moon. #HiddenFigures pic.twitter.com/5ONuV5zhQ0— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) February 24, 2020
We remember Katherine Johnson, influential NASA mathematician who calculated the flight path for America’s first space mission and inspired the movie ‘Hidden Figures.’ pic.twitter.com/drsXISKuBO— Smithsonian NMAAHC (@NMAAHC) February 24, 2020