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Pioneering NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson Celebrates 100th Birthday

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Katherine Johnson was born on August 26, 1918 - meaning, yesterday was her one hundredth birthday. She's one of the mathematicians who helped get the U.S. into space.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Katherine Johnson figured out the trajectories for NASA's first manned launch. John Glenn asked for her to personally check the trajectories for his Friendship 7 orbit. She also verified the trajectories for the Apollo lunar missions.

SHAPIRO: The work of Johnson and her fellow black female colleagues became better known after the 2016 book and movie "Hidden Figures." Johnson was played by Taraji P. Henson.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIDDEN FIGURES")

TARAJI P HENSON: (As Katherine Johnson) OK, so that puts your landing on at 5.0667 degrees north, 77.3333 degrees west.

CHANG: Katherine Johnson grew up in West Virginia, in the segregated South. As a little girl, she loved to count everything. Her father made sure she went to high school and beyond.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHERINE JOHNSON: And he always said, you will go to college. I didn't know what a college was.

SHAPIRO: That's Johnson in a 2011 interview with public television station WHRO. She graduated from high school at the age of 14 and from West Virginia State at the age of 18. This weekend, before her 100th birthday, the school unveiled a statue of her on campus.

CHANG: She was a double major in French and math.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: I was walking across the campus, and I met a math teacher who said, I'm coming back to teach math this year. And if you are not in my class, I'm going to come and find you.

CHANG: Johnson, in that same interview, says she thinks many more women could find careers in math.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: Girls, some of them are reluctant to ask questions. But if you want to know, you ask the question. There's no such thing as a dumb question. It's dumb if you don't ask it.

SHAPIRO: In 2015, President Obama awarded Katherine Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: In her 33 years at NASA, Katherine was a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender - showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science and reach for the stars.

CHANG: Happy 100, Miss Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.