Hidden Figures

Katherine Johnson sits at her desk at NASA in 1966.

Katherine Johnson, world-renowned research mathematician and West Virginia native, passed away Monday at 101 years old, according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

“The @NASA family will never forget Katherine Johnson’s courage and the milestones we could not have reached without her. Her story and her grace continue to inspire the world,” Bridenstine said on Twitter.

In a University press release, WVU President E. Gordon Gee said Johnson was a giant in the history of the United States.

“Without her, one wonders whether we would have ever succeeded in reaching the moon, at least as soon as we did,” Gee said in the release. “While recognition may have been late in coming, this state and this University are proud to have had a role in her education. The world lost a special soul.”

During a time when opportunities for African American students to earn a degree were far and few in between, Johnson went on to study at what is now known as the West Virginia State University.

Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

According to NASA, after graduating, Johnson became one of only three of the first African Americans to be accepted into graduate school at West Virginia University. While desegregating WVU was a notable accomplishment, this was only the start to Johnson’s influential life.

In 1953, she went on to join the all-black west area computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ Langley Laboratory, according to NASA.

This position led Johnson to work with astronauts John Glenn and Alan Shepard, playing an integral role in space missions such as the first human flight into space and the first moon landing.

“I believed I was where I was supposed to be,” Johnson said in an interview with AARP. “When I was a student, my mentor told me I’d make a good research mathematician. I said, ‘What is that,’ and he told me I’d have to find out for myself. At NASA, I happened to be at the right place at the right time.”

Despite having retired from NASA in 1986, Johnson’s achievements hardly slowed down. According to the WVU Alumni Association, in 2015, she was one of 17 to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and she was featured in the novel and later Oscar-nominated film, “Hidden Figures.” In 2019, NASA’S Independent Verification and Validation Facility was renamed in her honor as the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility.

“Follow your passion. Whatever you’re doing, do your best at all times, and make it as correct as possible,” Johnson said in the AARP interview. “Work as if someone is watching you. Then you’ll be prepared when an opportunity presents itself, and you’ll have the answers.”

In 2019, the Daily Athenaeum named Johnson as one of the most influential Mountaineers.