Katherine Johnson, the mathematician hired by NASA at its Langley Research Center in 1953 even as racially segregating Jim Crow laws were still widely used in Virginia, died Monday at age 101. The pioneering "human computer," who worked during the space race years to help Alan Shepard become the first American to travel into space and whose mathematical verifications John Glenn required before agreeing to go into orbit, retired in 1986 and was one of the inspirations for the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures. While the film focused on the story of Glenn's launch, Johnson said her greatest achievement was calculating the trajectory for the Apollo 11 launch to the moon in 1969, WAVY reports. Johnson was pioneering even before her NASA days, becoming one of the first three black students admitted to West Virginia University.
She also worked on the space shuttle and the Earth resources satellite. She was the first woman in the Flight Research Division to get author credit on a research report, per NBC News, and she ultimately authored or co-authored 26 research reports. "NASA is deeply saddened by the loss of a leader from our pioneering days," 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 color in the universal human quest to explore space ... we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her." Obituaries are using words like "trailblazing" and "broke barriers" and describing her as "one of NASA's greatest mathematicians." (She has her own LEGO figure and Barbie.)