by Kate O’Connor February 24, 2020

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson passed away today at the age of 101. Johnson was known for her work on historic missions and projects including America’s first human spaceflight (Alan Shepard—Freedom 7) and first orbital spaceflight (John Glenn—Friendship 7), syncing Project Apollo’s lunar module with the command module, the Space Shuttle program and the Earth Resources Satellite (Landsat). She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2019 for her contributions.

“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,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “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 first steps in space that we now follow on a journey to Mars … At NASA we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her.”

Johnson was born on Aug. 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and graduated from West Virginia State College in 1937. She worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center—formerly called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Langley Aeronautical Laboratory—from 1953 until her retirement in 1986. During her time at NACA/NASA, Johnson authored or coauthored 26 research reports.

Katherine Johnson at NASA Langley Research Center in 1980.
President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to NASA mathematician and physicist Katherine Johnson at the White House in Washington, DC, on November 24, 2015 NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images