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History > USA > Civil rights > Breaking the color barrier > Science


Katherine Johnson    1918-2020





Katherine Johnson,

part of a small group

of African-American women mathematicians

who did crucial work at NASA, in 1966.



NASA/Donaldson Collection, via Getty Images


Katherine Johnson Dies at 101;

Mathematician Broke Barriers at NASA

She was one of a group

of black women mathematicians at NASA

and its predecessor who were celebrated

in the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures.”

The New York Times

Feb. 24, 2020    Updated 10:48 a.m. ET
























































Katherine Johnson (born Creola Katherine Coleman)    1918-2020


Wielding little more

than a pencil, a slide rule

and one of the finest

mathematical minds in the country,

Mrs. Johnson (...) calculated

the precise trajectories

that would let Apollo 11 land

on the moon in 1969 and,

after Neil Armstrong’s

history-making moonwalk,

let it return to Earth.


A single error, she well knew,

could have dire consequences

for craft and crew.


Her impeccable calculations

had already helped plot

the successful flight

of Alan B. Shepard Jr.,

who became

the first American in space

when his Mercury spacecraft

went aloft in 1961.


The next year,

she likewise helped

make it possible for John Glenn,

in the Mercury vessel Friendship 7,

to become the first American

to orbit the Earth.


Yet throughout

Mrs. Johnson’s 33 years in NASA’s

Flight Research Division

— the office from which

the American space program sprang —

and for decades afterward,

almost no one knew her name.


Mrs. Johnson

was one of several hundred

rigorously educated, supremely capable

yet largely unheralded women who,

well before the modern feminist movement,

worked as NASA mathematicians.

But it was not only her sex that kept her

long marginalized and long unsung:


Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson,

a West Virginia native who began

her scientific career

in the age of Jim Crow,

was also African-American.


In old age, Mrs. Johnson

became the most celebrated

of the small cadre of black women

— perhaps three dozen —

who at midcentury served

as mathematicians

for the space agency

and its predecessor,

the National Advisory

Committee for Aeronautics.


Their story was told

in the 2016 Hollywood film

“Hidden Figures,” based on

Margot Lee Shetterly’s

nonfiction book of the same title,

published that year.


The movie starred

Taraji P. Henson as Mrs. Johnson,

the film’s central figure.

It also starred Octavia Spencer

and Janelle Monáe

as her real-life colleagues

Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.






















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