Katherine Johnson, the trailblazing mathematician who inspired the 2016 film Hidden Figures, has passed away at 101. She was one of the first black women to work as a scientist for NASA.
The film was based on a nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly that chronicled the lives of black female mathematicians and engineers at NASA in the 1950s and 1960s, when the United States was racing against the Soviet Union to send astronauts into space. Johnson calculated flight trajectories for various missions, including Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program in the U.S., working as a “human computer” at Langley in a segregated unit alongside other black engineers, including Dorothy Vaughan (portrayed by Octavia Spencer onscreen) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).
Johnson also calculated the trajectories for Apollo 11 and Space Shuttle missions. She worked at NASA from 1953 to 1986, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2015.
Taraji P. Henson, who played Johnson in the film, shared her remembrance of the mathematician on Instagram. She thanked Johnson for “sharing your intelligence, poise, grace, and beauty with the world,” adding, “I will forever be honored to have been a part of bringing your story to life.”
Spencer also posted, saying, “It was an honor to be a part of telling her story and feeling the impact that her legacy has had on future women in STEM.”
Hidden Figures, which was nominated for three Oscars and two Golden Globes, sparked conversations about representation, not just in the STEM fields but also in Hollywood. The film depicted the racism and sexism black women working at NASA faced, whether working in segregated teams or being reassigned to all-male flight research teams. Johnson released her autobiography, Reaching for the Moon, in 2019. Her passing also elicited responses on social media from NASA, various politicians, and celebrities.