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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.
Johnson was a crucial component of the Apollo space program. She was also notably an African-American woman, significant due to what she was able to accomplish in a time period where there was still a massive racial divide in the United States.
Katherine Johnson was an essential member of the team that calculated and controlled the trajectory of John Glenn's space capsule in flight for the Friendship 7 mission. She worked primarily as a human-computer, checking the work of white male counterparts and even the results from digital computers. In large part, Johnson's work helped break down significant racial barriers at the time.
NASA commented on Johnson's passing in a tweet, below.
We're saddened by the passing of celebrated #HiddenFigures mathematician Katherine Johnson. Today, we celebrate her 101 years of life and honor her legacy of excellence that broke down racial and social barriers: https://t.co/Tl3tsHAfYBpic.twitter.com/dGiGmEVvAW
— NASA (@NASA) February 24, 2020
What made Johnson's achievements in the Apollo program so notable was that she had to do most of the space trajectory calculations by hand. The astronauts were fearful that the computers onboard would break, so they relied on Katherine's mathematical expertise to run everything out on paper.
“If she says they’re good then I’m ready to go,” something Johnson has said Glenn said to her during her time at NASA.
The history of Katherine Johnson
Born Augst 26th, 1918, she quickly demonstrated impeccable mathematical skills. She soon decided to try and make a career of being a research mathematician, which was a lofty goal for an African American woman to achieve at the time. She started out as a teacher in her early career, but in 1952, she heard that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring African American mathematicians. She ultimately applied and accepted an offer in 1953.
Johnson then worked for the next 5 years essentially as a human-computer, checking calculations from digital computers. Due to national laws at the time, however, the black workforce had to use completely separate restrooms, computers, and office spaces than their white counterparts.
Johnson notably tried to forget about this physical segregation, saying she "didn't feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job ... and play bridge at lunch."
Johnson went on to work for NASA from 1958 until she retired in 1986.
She is noted as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist.
She directly had an impact on keeping astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn safe on their missions. Shepard was the first American in space and Glenn was the first American in Orbit. The calculations made by Johnson also laid the groundwork for the historic American Shuttle program, and she even developed plans for a mission to Mars.
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In 2015, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama and in 2019, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
She passed away on February 24, 2020.