CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A West Virginia native and previously “hidden figure” in the U.S. space race whose key mathematical contributions to NASA became more publicly known later in her life with help from the book and movie “Hidden Figures” has died.
On Monday morning, NASA confirmed the death of Katherine Johnson at the age of 101 in Virginia.
Our @NASA family is sad to learn the news that Katherine Johnson passed away this morning at 101 years old. She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten. https://t.co/UPOqo0sLfb pic.twitter.com/AgtxRnA89h
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) February 24, 2020
Johnson was a native of White Sulphur Springs, but due to segregation was unable to attend high school in Greenbrier County in the 1930s.
Instead, she went to what was West Virginia State College which, at the time, had a high school program and she stayed on in Kanawha County to complete her undergraduate degree.
Dr. Anthony Jenkins is the president of what is now West Virginia State University in Institute.
“Katherine Johnson is the epitome of ‘I’m not going to allow my environment to dictate my level of success,'” Jenkins said.
“For those African-Americans who came up in that era, you were considered less than, you were treated less than and, yet, Katherine Johnson put on a brave exterior and she had a self confidence and a belief in who she was and what she represented.”
Johnson would become the first African-American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University.
“She not only overcame barriers in the workplace. Just securing her education alone, she must have had a magnificent intellect and great drive,” said U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) during an appearance on Monday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”
An amazing West Virginia woman. Her work on earth sent men to the moon. What an incredible life and legacy. Katherine’s legacy will be forever remembered at @NASAIVV. Sending my love to her family today. https://t.co/N8jDO4W2m3
— Shelley Moore Capito (@SenCapito) February 24, 2020
Johnson’s career began in teaching before she later joined NASA as a mathematician.
While at NASA, Johnson provided calculations that helped the space agency with all of its major missions up to and through the Space Shuttle program, including key work for John Glenn’s orbital mission in 1962.
Johnson’s full bio is posted HERE.
“She went to work every day for an agency and a nation that saw her as less than a person and she gave 100 percent,” Jenkins said.
“That should inspire all of us that, no matter who you are, you should never allow society to dictate how you conduct yourself and what you’re going to achieve in life.”
A statue of Johnson now stands on the plaza named for her at West Virginia State University.
It was dedicated for Johnson’s 100th birthday with Johnson in attendance along with several family members.
Jenkins said it would stand “for perpetuity to inspire young men and young women of future generations.”
“She was a pioneer of the first order, that’s for sure,” said Capito who spent time with Johnson at her 99th birthday party.
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) agreed.
“We cannot thank Katherine enough for her contributions to our state and our nation,” he said in a statement.
Katherine Johnson was a stellar mathematician and a proud West Virginian, and because of her accomplishments, more young women have – and will – blaze their own trails in science, tech, engineering & math fields. Please join Gayle and I in praying for her family & loved ones. pic.twitter.com/EZIHkYGndB
— Senator Joe Manchin (@Sen_JoeManchin) February 24, 2020
In 2015, at age 97, Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Last July, NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation Facility located in Marion County was renamed the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility.
At the ceremony, “Her daughters said that Katherine really couldn’t understand what the whole big hubbub was about,” Capito said.
“She was doing her job. She was, obviously, breaking barriers at the same time, but she was so committed to her science and her math. It was intellectual exercise that really propelled her, I think, to live a bigger life than what we thought.”
Though her accomplishments were many, Jenkins said Johnson was always “far more than the great things that she did for NASA and for the United States of America.”
“Katherine Johnson was a great mother. She was a great sister. She was a great wife, a daughter, a friend. She was simply a great person,” he said.