Katherine Johnson, the black woman whose mathematical genius took her from a behind-the-scenes job in a segregated NASA to a key role in sending humans to the moon, died on Monday at the age of 101, the space agency said.
“She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wrote on Twitter.
Johnson’s 33-year career with NASA was portrayed in the book Hidden Figures, which then went on to become an Oscar-nominated film. Johnson was also awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by former United States President Barack Obama in 2015.
“She’s one of the greatest minds ever to grace our agency or our country,” then NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said when Johnson was presented with the honour.
Johnson worked on the Mercury and Apollo missions, including the first moon landing in 1969, and the early years of the space shuttle programme. Astronaut John Glenn thought so much of her that he insisted Johnson be consulted before his historic earth-orbiting flight in 1962. “Get the girl to check the numbers,” he said.
“He knew I had done [the calculations] before for him and they trusted my work,” Johnson told the Washington Post in 2017.