'Hidden Figures' Mathematician Katherine Johnson Dies Johnson was one of NASA's human "computers" and wrote trajectory equations for missions in the space agency's early days. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
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Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician And An Inspiration For 'Hidden Figures,' Dies

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Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician And An Inspiration For 'Hidden Figures,' Dies

Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician And An Inspiration For 'Hidden Figures,' Dies

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NOEL KING, HOST:

A woman who made key contributions to NASA in the agency's early days has died. Katherine Johnson was a black mathematician who came to be known as one of the space agency's human computers. She was 101 years old. Johnson calculated the flight path of many of NASA's most notable missions. She was featured in the book and then later the Oscar-nominated movie "Hidden Figures." She was played by actress Taraji P. Henson.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIDDEN FIGURES")

TARAJI P HENSON: (As Katherine Johnson) I would like to attend today's briefing.

KEVIN COSTNER: (As Al Harrison) And why's that?

HENSON: (As Katherine Johnson) Colonel Glenn launches in a few weeks. We don't have the math figured out yet.

JIM PARSONS: (As Paul Stafford) She is a woman. There is no protocol for a woman attending these meetings.

COSTNER: (As Al Harrison) OK. I get that part, Paul. But within these walls, who - who makes the rules?

HENSON: (As Katherine Johnson) You, sir. You are the boss. You just have to act like one.

KING: NPR's Russell Lewis has this remembrance.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Katherine Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918. As a young girl, she was fascinated by numbers, and it was clear she was gifted. Johnson graduated from high school at age 14 and finished college with degrees in math and French. She first became a teacher, but then, in 1953, took a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the agency that would become NASA. It was not easy then being black and living in the Deep South, but she got on with her job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHERINE JOHNSON: Everybody there was doing research. You had a mission, and you worked on it.

LEWIS: Johnson was one of a handful of African American women hired to do computing in the guidance and navigation department at Langley's (ph) Research Center in Virginia. Not only did they battle through racism but sexism, too. As Johnson told public television station WHRO in 2011, none of it held her back.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHRO BROADCAST)

JOHNSON: I just happened to be working with guys. And when they had briefings on it, I asked permission to go. And they said, well, the girls don't usually go. Well, I said, well, is there a law? They said, no. So then my boss said, let her go.

LEWIS: And she never stopped going, using her extraordinary computing skills to move up the NASA chain. She hand-computed the trajectory of the first man launch and continued to be important to the astronauts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN GLENN: Now this is Friendship 7 at 60 degrees right yaw and holding temporarily - over.

LEWIS: Before John Glenn flew Friendship 7 to become the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, he asked her to double-check the math of the new electronic computations. Margot Lee Shetterly authored the book "Hidden Figures" and told NPR in 2016 that Glenn considered Johnson's calculations part of his preflight checklist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY: So the astronaut who became a hero looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.

LEWIS: Johnson did calculations for Apollo 11, the first moon landing, and, later, the shuttle program. President Obama awarded her the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, at a 2015 White House ceremony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: In her 33 years at NASA, Katherine was a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science and reach for the stars.

LEWIS: While much of Katherine Johnson's work was unknown to many, her accomplishments continued to be highlighted later in life. She got a standing ovation at the Academy Awards in 2017, and NASA named the Computational Research Facility in her honor.

Russell Lewis, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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