Science

Pioneering NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson Dies at 101

Pioneering NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson Dies at 101”

These women, like Johnson's colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn, not only challenged the racist and sexist zeitgeist of the time, but very simply helped America achieve what is perhaps its most historically remarkable achievement - the Apollo program - but also to aid in the invention and definition of multiple industries.

Johnson was one of the so-called "computers" who calculated rocket trajectories and earth orbits by hand during NASA's early years. So trusted were her calculations that astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, considered them an integral part of his preflight checklist-even after the equations had been transferred over to modern electronic machines.

Such was her skill and reputation that Glenn had asked for her specifically and had refused to fly unless she verified the calculations.

Johnson died Monday of natural causes at a retirement community in Newport News, Virginia, family attorney Donyale Y.H. Reavis told The Associated Press. But her work at NASA's Langley Research Center eventually shifted to Project Mercury, the nation's first human space program. She was bestowed with numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. By the age of 13, she was already attending high school in West Virginia State College.

"I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed...anything that could be counted, I did", she once said. At 18, she enrolled herself in the college itself, where then she found a mentor with the school's math professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, which was the third African American in history to earn a PhD in mathematics. She initially became a teacher but, in 1953, took a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics - the agency that would become NASA.

Ms. Johnson made the transition to the computer era and worked on the shuttle program while writing or co-writing 26 research reports before retiring in 1986, NASA said. She always said she was too busy with her work to be concerned about being treated unequally.

"My dad taught us 'you are as good as anybody in this town, but you're no better,"' Johnson told NASA in 2008. "I don't have a feeling of inferiority".

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What has the reaction been?

Johnson and her co-workers had been relatively unsung heroes of America's Space Race.

Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote Hidden Figures, said it was her "life's honor" to tell Ms Johnson's story.

NASA shared news of Johnson's death on Monday, tweeting, "We're saddened by the passing of celebrated #HiddenFigures mathematician Katherine Johnson". You changed the narrative. In 1959, she married US Army officer James Johnson, and their family grew to include six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton also paid tribute to Ms Johnson on Twitter.

Katherine Johnson, whose achievements were depicted in the award-winning film Hidden Figures, and the mathematician who was critical to the first moon landing has passed away, according to NASA.



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