NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed her death, writing on Twitter, “Our NASA family is sad to learn the news that Katherine Johnson passed away this morning at 101 years old. She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten.”
Johnson was instrumental in calculating one of the finest points of the Apollo 11 mission — the trajectories that would allow the spacecraft to land on the moon. That story, and other aspects of her 33-year career at NASA, were featured in the 2016 Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures, which starred Taraji P. Henson as Johnson. Johnson even showed up to the Academy Awards that year, at the age of 98, and received a standing ovation.
Born in West Virginia in 1918, Johnson’s remarkable career played out at a time when there were not only few opportunities for women in the sciences, but during the heyday of Jim Crow. Still, she graduated West Virginia State with a double major in mathematics and French in 1937, then became one of the first three graduate students to integrate West Virginia University in 1940. When NASA hired her in 1952, the institution was still largely segregated, but she soon made herself indispensable in the Flight Research Division, where she remained for the rest of her career.
“The guys all had graduate degrees in mathematics; they had forgotten all the geometry they ever knew,” Johnson told the Fayetteville Observer in a 2010 interview. “I still remembered mine.”
Johnson published an array of technical papers over the course of her career and became one of the first women at NASA to co-author an agency report. After retiring from NASA, she traveled the country as an advocate for math education.