NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson dies aged 101
Adam Spencer, Sydney Uni’s Mathematics ambassador & author, joins Michael to praise the life and legacy of Katherine Johnson, the American mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. crewed space flights and subject of the 2016 film Hidden Figures.
During her 35-year career at NASA and its predecessor, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks.
The space agency noted her “historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist”.
Johnson’s work included calculating trajectories; launch windows and emergency return paths for Project Mercury spaceflights, including those for astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American in orbit, and rendezvous paths for the Apollo Lunar Module and command module on flights to the Moon.
Her calculations were also essential to the beginning of the Space Shuttle program, and she worked on plans for a mission to Mars.
In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 2019 she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.