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In 2016’s Hidden Figures, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe portrayed three African-American NASA mathematicians whose work played an integral role in the space race. Now one of the women that movie was based on has passed away. Hidden Figures inspiration Katherine Johnson has died at 101 years of age. NASA remembers her below:
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the news of Katherine Johnson’s passing today, taking to Twitter to offer his condolences to her family and pay tribute to the woman that helped humanity take its first steps into space. The mathematician, who was born in 1918, passed away today at the age of 101.
Actress Taraji P. Henson portrayed Katherine Johnson in Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures, which was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Picture. Katherine Johnson even got to attend the ceremony and appear on stage with the cast.
Starring alongside Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures was Octavia Spencer who played Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe who played engineer Mary Jackson. Katherine Johnson was the last of that trio still alive as Dorothy Vaughan passed away in 2008 and Mary Jackson passed away in 2005 according to NBC News.
The astronauts may get all the glory, they’re the ones with the fancy suits in space and they’re the ones that get to walk on the moon, but it takes a lot of people to make those heroics possible and many of those people and their tireless work goes unheralded. While Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan didn’t live to see the wider cultural recognition of their contributions brought on by Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson did.
And Katherine Johnson’s contributions were significant. After graduating from college and working as a public school teacher, Johnson was hired by NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, in 1953 to work at the Langley Laboratory in Virginia. There she used her skills at math to help man begin the ascent to the final frontier.
Katherine Johnson did trajectory analysis for America’s first human spaceflight, Alan Shepard’s mission Freedom 7 in 1961. She also contributed to America’s first orbital spaceflight piloted by John Glenn. Glenn wasn’t keen on putting his life in the hands of the computers that would be used to handle the mission on Earth, and wanted Katherine Johnson to check all the equations by hand to give him confidence they were right. She also worked on the space shuttle and Earth Resources Satellite.
Katherine Johnson worked for NASA for over 30 years before retiring in 1986. Last year, when she was a whopping 100 years old, NASA honored her by reintroducing a facility in her home state of West Virginia as the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility. Katherine Johnson also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Recognition may have come later than it should have and it shouldn’t have depended on a book and movie to get there, but Katherine Johnson and the trailblazing black women of NASA’s early years are hidden no more.
Hidden Figures is now available on Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, DVD and digital. Check out our 2020 Release Schedule to see what movies are headed to theaters this year.