Katherine Johnson, the pioneering mathematician who helped send the first astronauts to the Moon, has died at 101.

Johnson’s achievements were depicted in the film Hidden Figures, which showed her work in orbital mathematics and its importance to the Apollo space programme.

She also made history as an African-American woman during a time of intense racism and sexism in the space industry and wider society.

“Our Nasa family is sad to learn the news that Katherine Johnson passed away this morning at 101 years old,” wrote Nasa administration Jim Bridenstine on Twitter. ”She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten.”

A tweet from Nasa said the space agency would ”celebrate her 101 years of life and honor her legacy of excellence that broke down racial and social barriers”.

One of Johnson’s most famous achievements came as Nasa prepared to send John Glenn in the first American orbital spaceflight, as part of the Friendship 7 mission.

The trajectory of Glenn’s capsule was precisely calculated and controlled using the very latest and relatively powerful IBM computers spread across the world. But astronauts were fearful about relying on the computers, which were new and sometimes broke, and Glenn asked that engineers “get the girl” – Johnson – to do the calculations by hand.

“If she says they’re good then I’m ready to go,” Johnson remembred Glenn saying.

But she went on to work on just about every major Nasa mission of recent years: her work helped line up Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the Command and Service Module that floated in orbit, and she worked on the Space Shuttle as well as publishing 26 different research reports.

In 2015, Johnson was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

A year later, her work was depicted in the film Hidden Figures, where she was played by Taraji P Henson.

Johnson died on 24 February, at the age of 101, Nasa said.


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