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.”

Photo: Courtesy of NASAA young Katherine Johnson at her desk at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

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: