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Katherine Johnson, mathematician who took man to the Moon, dies

SCIENCE SPACE | 24 de febrero de 2020

Katherine Johnson, mathematician who took man to the Moon, dies 

US President Barack Obama (R) kisses African American mathematician Katherine Johnson (L) after he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony in Washingon DC, on 24 November 2015 (reissued 24 February 2020). According to reports, legendary NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson died on 24 February 2020 at the age of 101. EFE/EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS *** Local Caption *** 52406525

Washington, Feb 24 (efe-epa).- "If she says they're good, then I'm ready to go," said US astronaut John Glenn, the first man to orbit the Earth before his 1962 mission, of Katherine Johnson, the African American mathematician working for NASA who seven years later in 1969 made the precise calculations so that Apollo 11 could land on the Moon and died on Monday at age 101.

"Our @NASA family is sad to learn the news that Katherine Johnson passed away this morning at 101 years old. She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten," wrote NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine on the US space agency's Twitter account.

"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 human quest to explore space," Bridenstine went on to say in a statement, adding "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."

Her work for NASA for years was unknown to the general public until the film "Hidden Figures" was released in 2016 and told the story of Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson and Johnson - all NASA mathematicians who made the detailed and crucial calculations for various space shots by hand.

Their longtime lack of public recognition was due in part to the fact that during the 1960s women involved in science in the US faced a number of difficulties, not to mention the fact that all three were black and many states still had the so-called Jim Crow laws in place that sought to perpetuate segregation between blacks and whites.

However, and despite all these difficulties, long before man went to the Moon, Johnson had already overcome many barriers.

Born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, which did not have more than 1,000 residents, Johnson stood out early at school for her facility with numbers, a talent that resulted in her being accepted to the West Virginia State College preparatory school, where later she attended university and in 1937 graduated with highest honors in mathematics.

In 1939, and after working as a teacher in various public schools for African Americans, Johnson became one of the first three black students at the University of West Virginia, the state's most prestigious academic institution.

Years later, she became one of the black women comprising a team at the Langley Research Center tasked with calculating the trajectory of the first space launches, operations that are nowadays done by computer.

It was their calculations that helped the Apollo 11 space mission place Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969, but they also helped calculate the trajectory of the first US manned space shot with Alan Shepard on board in 1961.

When NASA began using computers to make the calculations for Glenn's orbital mission in 1962, the agency asked Johnson to double-check and verify the machine-made calculations.

Despite the years of anonymity Johnson and her colleagues endured, she ultimately received public recognition in 2015 when then-President Barack Obama presented her with the Medal of Freedom.

At the ceremony, Obama said that Johnson was a "pioneer in American space history" and refused to see herself as limited by her sex and race, despite the social restrictions imposed on black women on that basis at the time.

Two years later, NASA dedicated a building to her at its headquarters in Langley, Virginia.


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