(NEW YORK) — NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who helped pave the way for the first American astronaut to successfully orbit the Earth, died Monday morning at the age of 101, according to NASA.
The pivotal roles of Johnson and other African American women at NASA were highlighted in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. Johnson was played by Taraji P. Henson.
“Johnson helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of color,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “Her dedication and skill as a mathematician helped put humans on the moon and before that made it possible for our astronauts to take the first steps in space that we now follow on a journey to Mars.”
Johnson was hired by NASA in 1953 and calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, before electronic computers were used.
When John Glenn was preparing for his mission on which he’d become the first American to orbit the Earth, he requested that Johnson personally recheck the calculations made by the new electronic computers.
According to Johnson, Glenn said, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”
President Barack Obama presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
“In her 33 years at NASA,” Obama said at the time, Johnson “broke the barriers of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science and reach for the stars.”
Bridenstine said in his statement, “We will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her.”
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