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Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson (born 1918) is an African-American mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of U.S. crewed spaceflights. During her 35-year career at NASA and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped the space agency pioneer the use of computers to perform tasks. She worked on the calculation of trajectories, launch windows and emergency return paths for Project Mercury spaceflights, including those of Alan Shepard and John Glenn, respectively the first Americans in space and in orbit.

Johnson later worked with the Apollo program, calculating rendezvous paths for the lunar lander and command module on its flights to the Moon. Her calculations were essential to the beginning of the Space Shuttle program and she also worked on plans for a mission to Mars. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as a pioneering example of African-American women in STEM. She was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson as a lead character in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. This picture, taken in 1966, shows Johnson at her desk at Langley Research Center.

Photograph credit: NASA; restored by Adam Cuerden

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