RIP Katherine Johnson: The extraordinary NASA mathematician astronauts trusted over computers

Katie Ramirez
May 16, 2020

Katherine Johnson, a pioneering NASA mathematician who was fundamental in landing astronauts on the moon, and was depicted in the film and book "Hidden Figures", died on Monday.

"The NASA family will never forget Katherine Johnson's courage and the milestones we could not have reached without her", Bridenstine wrote on Twitter. She calculated the 1961 flight path of Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

Johnson, who was initially rejected by NASA when she first applied, was tasked by Glenn to check the computer's work by redoing all the math done by a computer that had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn's Friendship 7 mission. She hand-computed the trajectory of the first manned launch and continued to be important to the astronauts.

"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 colour in the universal human quest to explore space", he said in a statement. "But when he got ready to go, he said, 'Call her".

She is noted as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist.

Ms. Johnson was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama in 2015 and in 2016 he cited her in his State of the Union Address as an example of America's spirit of discovery. Obama presented the medal to 13 living and four posthumous pioneers in science, sports, public service, human rights, politics and arts.

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In 1953, Johnson-then Katherine Goble-began work at Langley Research Center at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA, where she would stay until her retirement in 1986.

"My dad taught us, 'You are as good as anybody in this town but you're no better, '" Johnson said. A look at what made her life and work extraordinary - breaking racial as well as gender barriers, and helping send Americans to space. But she dropped out a year later when she became pregnant, and focused on her new family. She also helped to calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon.

In a statement, the United States space agency said: "Today, we celebrate her 101 years of life and honor her legacy of excellence that broke down racial and social barriers". "I don't have a feeling of inferiority. I will forever be honored to have been a part of bringing your story to life".

Reuters reports that Katherine Johnson became mathematics-obsessed during her childhood in West Virginia, with her parents moving 120 miles so she could attend a high school for black children.

NASA shared news of Johnson's death on Monday, tweeting, "We're saddened by the passing of celebrated #HiddenFigures mathematician Katherine Johnson". Check out NASA's video tribute to Katherine Johnson in the video provided below. "Her calculations helped put Americans in space, in orbit, and, finally, on the Moon", she wrote. Your legacy will live on forever and ever.

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