NASA research mathematician Katherine Johnson is photographed at her desk at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Credit: NASA

Groundbreaking mathematician and NASA legend Katherine Johnson, whose orbital mechanics calculations helped make the first crewed space flights possible, passed away Monday. 

She was 101 years old.

“NASA is deeply saddened by the loss of a leader from our pioneering days, and we send our deepest condolences to the family of Katherine Johnson,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.

“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 colour in the universal human quest to explore space. 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.”

Groundbreaking contributions

From 1953 to 1986, Johnson worked at the Langley Research Center as a human-computer, calculating rocket trajectories.

In 1961, she helped put the first American into space. The following year, she successfully verified the complex calculations necessary to get astronaut John Glenn into orbit.

“If she says they’re good,’” Glenn said about Johnson’s work, according to NASA, “then I’m ready to go.”

When asked about her career, Johnson said she “loved going to work every single day.”

She also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite — later renamed Landsat — and authored or co-authored 26 research reports. 

Multiple awards

At age 97, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour. Bridenstine said it was “well-deserved.”

“We will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her,” he added.

“We will continue building on her legacy and work tirelessly to increase opportunities for everyone who has something to contribute toward the ongoing work of raising the bar of human potential.”

She was also the recipient of the NASA Lunar Orbiter Award and three NASA Special Achievement Awards. 

In 1997 Johnson was named Mathematician of the Year by the National Technical Association. Outside NASA, she received an honourary Doctor of Law degree from the State University of New York and honourary Doctor of Science degrees from Capitol College in Maryland and Old Dominion University in Virginia.

In 2016, her work was immortalized in the film “Hidden Figures,” which shone an international spotlight on the STEM contributions made by black women.

Segregated scientists 

Until 1958, Johnson, along with several other black scientists, were were hidden away in a segregated building on the NASA campus and forced to use separate bathrooms and dining facilities, away from their white colleagues, despite their invaluable contributions and accomplishments. 

Johnson and her husband Jim had three children, six grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.