Museum News

Statement on the Passing of Influential NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson

February 25, 2020
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Annie Leibovitz, © Annie Leibovitz

Spencer Crew, interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, released the following statement today, Feb. 25, on the death of noted mathematician and one of NASA's “human computers,” Katherine Johnson. 

It is with deep sadness that we at the National Museum of African American History and Culture mourn the passing of noted NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson. She played a key role on the 1969 Apollo 11 space team, calculating the precise trajectories that would make it possible for the U.S. to land a crew safely on the moon. The critically important work she performed moved our country forward in a compelling way as we charted a bold course in space travel.  It also broke barriers for women in science and mathematics.

From her earliest childhood Johnson counted things. “I counted everything: the steps, the dishes, the stars in the sky,” Johnson once said, recalling her youth. The youngest of four children of a farmer and a schoolteacher, Johnson was born into a household that valued education. Since there was no school for African American children in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson and her siblings attended a laboratory school at West Virginia State Institute, a historically black college. At 15, Johnson enrolled at West Virginia State earning a degree in math education and French.

Johnson was one of three black students selected to integrate West Virginia University’s graduate program. After a brief time, she left school to start family and to teach. In 1952, Johnson learned about a program that would change the course of her life. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ Langley Aeronautical Laboratory (now known as NASA and the Langley Research Center) was hiring black women mathematicians to be “human computers” to check calculations for technological developments. In 1953, Johnson began her new job working as a member of a computing group; however, her inquisitive nature and boldness won her a place in Langley’s flight research division. Known for her mathematical accuracy, Johnson performed calculations for several historic NASA missions, including the first manned mission to the moon. 

Despite being born into an era when professional opportunities for women of color were scarce, Johnson quietly rose above the odds stacked against her. She and other African American women at NASA were consigned to a separate office, dining and bathroom facilities, but over time Johnson’s work won her acceptance. When recalling her time at NASA, Johnson insisted that she never struggled with feelings of inferiority. She knew she was just as good as the next person. 

After retiring from NASA, Johnson became a strong advocate for mathematics education. She is the recipient of several awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, and a NASA research facility is named in her honor. Her story has been told in the bestselling book and feature-length film Hidden Figures.  

Johnson will forever be remembered for her work with NASA and as a pioneering force for women of color in science, technology, engineering and math.

 

About the National Museum of African American History and Culture 
Since opening Sept. 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has welcomed more than 6 million visitors. Occupying a prominent location next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the nearly 400,000-square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. For more information about the museum, visit nmaahc.si.edu, follow @NMAAHC on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or call Smithsonian information at (202) 633-1000.

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Media Contact(s): 

Jermaine House (202) 633-9495; housej@si.edu 
Jason Spear (202) 633-9904; spearj@si.edu 

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The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation. A place that transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all.