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AstroAlert: Katherine Johnson, NASA mathematician who broke barriers, has died

Hi everyone,
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Sad news: Pioneering NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson died today at the age of 101.
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Born in West Virginia in 1918, Johnson was fascinated by numbers as a little girl. “I counted everything,” she said. “I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.”
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A gifted student and mathematical prodigy, she graduated from high school at age 14 and from college at 18.
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After teaching for years, she became one of the first African-American women to land a job with what would eventually become NASA. There, she and other human “computers,” as they were called in those days, performing complex calculations using slide rules or mechanical devices.
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Katherine Johnson working at NASA in 1962

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The mathematical equations that Johnson developed were crucial for the success of NASA’s space program. She became the first woman to author a technical report for the agency, titled Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position. 
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Johnson’s many accomplishments included calculating the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s historic flight when he became the first American in space, and again later for the Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. She also computed the precise moment that the Apollo lunar lander would need to leave the Moon’s surface to return to the orbiting command module.
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So renowned were her mathematical skills that when astronaut John Glenn orbited the Earth in 1962, he refused to go until Johnson verified the calculations made by NASA’s fancy new electronic computers.
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Yet perhaps even more importantly, Johnson served as a role model and inspiration for countless others who followed the trail she blazed. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nations’s highest civilian honor.
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Katherine Johnson receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

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Her life was depicted in the 2016 Oscar-nominated film, Hidden Figures.
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If you’d like to know more about the life of Katherine Johnson, just click on any of the links below:
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Best regards,

Michael
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Dr. Michael West is Lowell Observatory’s Deputy Director for Science. Follow his AstroAlerts to receive breaking news stories from the world of astronomy, odd bits of astronomical lore, and information about upcoming astronomical events. You can reach him at mwest@lowell.edu or follow him on Twitter @curatedcosmos.
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