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NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose calculations enabled Apollo 11 to land on the moon and who was immortalized in film 'Hidden Figures, dies aged 101

Legendary NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson dies at 101 

  • NASA confirmed Katherine Johnson's death in a tweet on Monday morning
  • Johnson is remembered as a trailblazer who helped America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology in NASA's early years
  • Her trajectory analysis was used to carry the first American into space in 1961 
  • The following year she manually verified calculations for the first orbital mission
  • In 1969, she calculated the precise trajectories that allowed the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon before Neil Armstrong's historic moonwalk
  • Johnson was one of the unsung heroes of the Space Race as her contributions came at a time when NASA was fraught with sexism and racism
  • Her story inspired the 2016 Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures 

Katherine Johnson, the pioneering black NASA mathematician whose manual calculations allowed the first American astronaut to land on the moon in 1969 and inspired the film Hidden Figures, has died aged 101.  

NASA confirmed Johnson's passing in a tweet on Monday morning. 

'Today, we celebrate her 101 years of life and honor her legacy of excellence that broke down racial and social barriers,' the tweet read.   

Johnson is remembered as a trailblazer who helped America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology during a time when NASA was fraught with sexism and racism.   

Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who helped pave the way for the first American astronaut to successfully orbit the Earth, has died aged 101

NASA pioneer Katherine Johnson dies at 101

NASA confirmed Johnson's passing in a tweet on Monday morning.

Johnson was one of NASA's so-called 'computers' who calculated rocket trajectories and earth orbits by hand, using a pencil and slide rule. She is seen hard at work at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in the 1960s

Johnson was one of NASA's so-called 'computers' who calculated rocket trajectories and earth orbits by hand, using a pencil and slide rule. She is seen hard at work at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in the 1960s

Johnson had been a relatively unsung hero of America's Space Race until 2015, when President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Johnson had been a relatively unsung hero of America's Space Race until 2015, when President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Johnson was hired by NASA's precursor organization, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, in 1953. 

She and other black women worked in a racially segregated computing unit at what is now called Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, until 1958, when NACA became NASA. 

Johnson joined Project Mercury, the nation's first human space program, that year as one of the so-called 'computers' who calculated rocket trajectories and earth orbits by hand, using a pencil and slide rule. 

'Our office computed all the (rocket) trajectories,' Johnson told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in 2012. 

'You tell me when and where you want it to come down, and I will tell you where and when and how to launch it.' 

In 1961, Johnson did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 Mission, the first to carry an American into space.  

In 1962, she manually verified calculations by a nascent NASA computer for astronaut John Glenn's groundbreaking orbital mission as the US beat the Soviet Union (USSR) in the Space Race. 

'Get the girl to check the numbers,' a computer-skeptical Glenn had insisted in the days before the launch. 

Seven years later Johnson calculated the precise trajectories that allowed the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon in 1969 before the world watched Neil Armstrong's historic moonwalk.  

Johnson considered her work on the Apollo moon missions to be her greatest contribution to space exploration.  

She also worked on the Space Shuttle program before retiring in 1986. 

Johnson spent her later years encouraging students to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Looking back, she said she had little time to worry about being treated unequally.

'My dad taught us: "You are as good as anybody in this town, but you're no better,"' Johnson told NASA in 2008. 

'I don't have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I'm as good as anybody, but no better.'

Katherine Johnson talks about involvement in first space flight
Johnson is remembered as a trailblazer who helped America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology over her 33 years with the NASA

Johnson is remembered as a trailblazer who helped America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology over her 33 years with the NASA 

Johnson was hired by NASA's precursor organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, in 1953. She and other black women initially worked in a racially segregated computing unit in Hampton, Virginia, which was dissolved when NACA became NASA in 1958

Johnson (pictured in 1980) considered her work on the Apollo moon missions to be her greatest contribution to space exploration. She also worked on the Space Shuttle program before retiring in 1986

Johnson (pictured in 1980) considered her work on the Apollo moon missions to be her greatest contribution to space exploration. She also worked on the Space Shuttle program before retiring in 1986 

Johnson and her black colleagues had been relatively unsung heroes of America's Space Race until 2015, when President Barack Obama awarded Johnson - then 97 - the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.  

The story of how Johnson and her co-workers Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson assisted in breaking the Earth's atmosphere while fighting against sexism and racism during a time of segregation was told in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures.  

The film starring Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer and Taraji P Henson - who portrayed Johnson - grossed more than $200million and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. 

Johnson was met with thunderous applause as she joined the actors on stage at the Academy Awards ceremony. Jackson and Vaughan had died in 2005 and 2008 respectively.  

Johnson's story inspired the 2016 Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures starring Janelle Monae, Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer

Johnson's story inspired the 2016 Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures starring Janelle Monae, Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer

Johnson is pictured on stage with the stars of Hidden Figures, Janelle Monae, Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer (left to right) during the 89th Annual Academy Awards in 2017

Johnson is pictured on stage with the stars of Hidden Figures, Janelle Monae, Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer (left to right) during the 89th Annual Academy Awards in 2017

Johnson was portrayed in Hidden Figures by Taraji P Henson (center left in the film)

Johnson was portrayed in Hidden Figures by Taraji P Henson (center left in the film)

NASA honored her with the Katherine Johnson Computational Research Facility in Hampton the same year. 

In December, Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson received Congressional Gold Medals after the 'Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act' was signed into agreement.     

Tributes to Jackson poured out after her death was announced on Monday. 

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine praised Johnson as '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,' Bridenstine said in a statement.

'The NASA family will never forget Katherine Johnson's courage and the milestones we could not have reached without her. 

'Her story and her grace continue to inspire the world.'  

Actress Taraji P Henson, who played Johnson in Hidden Figures, wrote on Instagram Monday: 'Thank you QUEEN #KatherineJohnson for sharing your intelligence, poise, grace and beauty with the world! 

'Because of your hard work little girls EVERYWHERE can dream as big as the MOON!!! Your legacy will live on FORVER AND EVER!!! You ran so we could fly!!!

'I will forever be honored to have been apart of bringing your story to life. You/your story was hidden and thank GOD you are #hiddennomore

'God bless your beautiful family. I am so honored to have sat and broke bread with you all. My thoughts and prayers are with you!'

Margot Lee Shetterly, whose book Hidden Figures (2016) provided the basis for the film, called Johnson 'exceptional in every way'.  

'The wonderful gift that Katherine Johnson gave us is that her story shined a light on the stories of so many other people,' Shetterly told The Associated Press. 

'She gave us a new way to look at black history, women's history and American history.'

Shetterly noted that Johnson died during Black History Month and a few days after the anniversary of Glenn's orbits of the earth on February 20, 1962, for which she played an important role.

'We get to mourn her and also commemorate the work that she did that she´s most known for at the same time,' the author said. 

Johnson receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2015

Katherine  is pictured at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in Hampton, Virginia, in September 2017

Katherine  is pictured at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in Hampton, Virginia, in September 2017

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden presents Johnson with an award honoring members of the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in December 2016

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden presents Johnson with an award honoring members of the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in December 2016

Johnson was born Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, near the Virginia border. 

The small town had no schools for blacks beyond the eighth grade, she told The Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1997.

Each September, her father drove Johnson and her siblings to Institute, West Virginia, for high school and college on the campus of the historically black West Virginia State College.

Johnson taught at black public schools before becoming one of three black students to integrate West Virginia's graduate schools in 1939.

She left after the first session to start a family with her first husband, James Goble, and returned to teaching when her three daughters grew older.  

Johnson's first husband died in 1956. She married James A Johnson in 1959. 

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