Clark Atlanta University honors African American space pioneer

9:47 a.m. Monday, May 22, 2017 Atlanta Education News
Katherine Johnson is a physicist, space scientist, and mathematician who contributed to America's aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA. Known for accuracy in computerized celestial navigation, she calculated the trajectory for Project Mercury and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. In 2015, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Clark Atlanta University is awarding an honorary degree to Katherine Johnson, the late-in-life celebrity depicted by actress Taraji P. Henson in the movie ‘Hidden Figures.’

Johnson, 98, will be unable to make it to the Monday commencement, but the historic black college and university was able to produce and share the video below of a short interview with the former NASA mathematician who broke racial and gender barriers to help put some of the first American’s into space.

Katherine Johnson, who’s life story was recently told in the blockbuster hit “Hidden Figures” offers her advice for women and 2017 college grads. (Footage provided by Clark Atlanta University)

Johnson was a West Virginia whiz kid, going to high school at 10 and graduating from college at 18. She got a job as a teacher before hearing that the government agency, which later became NASA, was looking for mathematicians to solve complex math problems related to flight in the age before computers. She went to work for it in 1953. Below is a photo of Johnson at work.

Photo courtesy NASA
Katherine Johnson became a NASA "computer," calculating figures including the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Even after NASA began using electronic computers, John Glenn requested that Johnson personally recheck the calculations made by the new electronic computers before his mission on which he became the first American to orbit the Earth. Johnson later performed the calculations for the first moon landing in 1969.

She retired in 1986, but has seen a resurgence of attention because of this year’s movie about her and other African American women who helped America get into space and onto the moon. Below is Johnson and stars of ‘Hidden Figures’ during this year’s Academy Awards.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 26: NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (2nd L) appears onstage with (L-R) actors Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer speak onstage during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Johnson, in the video, counsels all people to work hard at what they do, learn as much as possible, and help others.

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