Katherine Johnson, whose work as a mathematician for NASA helped John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth in a spacecraft, died at the age of 101. Johnson began her amazing career in 1953 when she was hired to work at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, where she and other women computed complex mathematical equations before computers were invented.
Previous to getting her break at Langley, Johnson was handpicked by West Virginia State University's president, Dr. John W. Davis, to be one of the first black students to attend the school.
She was eventually recruited by NASA as the space agency prepared to send Glenn in a space capsule to orbit the Earth. As Glenn prepared for his historic flight, he and the other astronauts were concerned about leaving the complex orbital calculations to a machine, so he told the engineers to "get the girl" to double-check the calculations by hand, referring to Johnson.
"If she says they're good, then I'm ready to go," Glenn said.
Johnson told NASA that her most significant contribution to space exploration was her work to synch "Project Apollo's Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module."
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called her an American hero whose "pioneering legacy will never be forgotten."
"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 color in the universal quest to explore space," he 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."
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