The NASA mathematician, Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, who was depicted in the award-winning movie, Hidden Figures, has died at the age of 101. Here are five facts about the renowned NASA scientist who pushed for racial equality as the first African American woman in the space agency, while breaking new grounds in STEM (for science, technology, engineering and math) education.
The Book
Hidden Figures follows Johnson as she endured racial inequality while double-checking the calculations for astronaut John Glenn’s successful orbit into space.
Describing the importance of Johnson’s contributions, author Margot Lee Shetterly told Space, “This is the story of broad success of women overall, and African American women specifically, in a job category that it’s simply assumed where they don’t exist. During a time of Jim Crow segregation, during a time when women frequently weren’t even allowed to have credit cards in their own names, here were these womenlarge numbers of womendoing very high-level mathematical work at one of the highest scientific institutions in the world at that time.”
She Loved CountingJohnson, who also played big part in the first moon landing, had such a genuine love for mathematics. From the beginning of her studies, Johnson moved ahead of her classmates and attending into advanced classes. By the age of 10, Johnson was already taking classes in high school.
About her love for counting, Johnson told NASA, “I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washedanything that could be counted, I did.”
Played by Taraji P. HensonJohnson enjoyed watching her portrayal by Empire actress Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures. Johnson’s daughters, Joylette Goble Hylick and Katherine Goble Moore, claim she has watched the Theodore Melfi film at least three times.
In an interview with W magazine, Henson described playing her real-life counterpart, “Katherine, [is a] very different woman from a very different time where women had no rights, basically, so it was exhausting in another way, because I am a lot in life. Taraji is very, you know, I’m rambunctious. I have a lot of energy. I’m very animated when I speak, Katherine is not. The women were very different in the ’60s, particularly the black women and the clothes were different, the girdles. You couldn’t move like that in a girdle.”
No One Was Going to Stop HerJohnson recalled the obstacles of being one of the first women to attend an editorial meeting at NASA. At the time, only men were allowed to write the papers and discuss their findings. After being blocked from entering the all-male meeting, she still insisted on attending.
Recalling the harsh experience to The Washington Post, Johnson said she responded with, “Is there a law that says I can’t go?”
The Presidential Medal of FreedomOn November 24, 2015, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, for her pioneering work the early NASA spaceflights.
During the ceremony, Obama described her accomplishments, “In her 33 years at NASA, Katherine was a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science, and reach for the stars.”
After receiving the medal, Johnson describe the moment to The Washington Post, “That was a thrill.”
In addition to her daughters, Johnson is survived by six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.