Katherine Johnson made history from behind the scenes. Without her, Alan Shephard, the first American in Space, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, would have remained on the ground with no earth-shattering, out-of-this-world records. Johnson’s monumental legacy speaks of a woman larger than life.

She made history as one of the first female African American mathematicians to work for NASA. Her orbital calculations were vital to the success of the first U.S. crewed spaceflights.

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), she died on Tuesday, February 24, 2020. She was 101.

Johnson worked as a human computer at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Before the invention of electronic computers, “computers” were people able to compute difficult mathematical equations. Johnson was undoubtedly one of the most brilliant human computers, receiving the trust of Astronaut John Glenn. 

Before Glenn was launched into space in early 1962 as a part of Project Mercury, he requested a final check on his spacecraft Friendship 7’s planned orbital trajectory. The trajectory had been generated by one of the first electronic computers. Glenn trusted Johnson more than the cold metal of an untested machine and asked specifically for her to double-check the trajectory. “If she says the numbers are good, I’m ready to go,” Glenn declared. 

For her contribution to the U.S. Space Program behind the scenes, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 24, 2015 from former President Obama.

Administration Jim Bridenstine, head of NASA, issued a statement honoring Johnson’s powerful legacy. “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. 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 firs steps in space that we now follow on a journey to Mars. Her Presidential Medal of Freedom was a well-deserved recognition.” 

Vice President Mike Pence tweeted out a touching tribute. “Our Nation lost a great American space pioneer, the original Hidden Figure, Katherine G. Johnson. In the face of adversity & racial discrimination, she made incalculable contributions to America’s Space program and pushed the frontier of human knowledge by her brilliance.” 

Her life and legacy were featured in the award-winning 2016 biographical drama Hidden Figures which was nominated for three Oscars and two Golden Globes.

The world would have been a different place without Katherine Johnson. She will be missed.

To learn more about the legacy of Katherine Johnson, visit the biography that NASA published for her by clicking here or watch Hidden Figures, which was reviewed by Focus on the Family’s Plugged in team here.


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