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Katherine Johnson, maths whizz who helped put 1st man on the moon, dies aged 101

In 2016, a Hollywood movie 'Hidden Figures', starring Taraji P Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer, based on the stories of Johnson and her African American colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, was released.

FILE: Actor Janelle Monae, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and actors Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer pose backstage during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017. Picture: AFP.

JOHANNESBURG - Katherine Johnson, the mathematical whizz whose calculations helped put the first man on the moon in 1969, has died at the age of 101, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) on Monday.

Born on 26 August 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, Johnson was an accomplished leader in her field, having been handpicked to be one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools and graduated with the highest honours from college in 1937.

Johnson secured her first job in science at the all-black West Area Computing section at the then-National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (Naca) Langley lab.

"The 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik changed history - and Katherine Johnson’s life. In 1957, Katherine provided some of the math for the 1958 document Notes on Space Technology, a compendium of a series of 1958 lectures given by engineers in the Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD). Engineers from those groups formed the core of the Space Task Group, the NACA’s first official foray into space travel, and Katherine, who had worked with many of them since coming to Langley, 'came along with the program' as the NACA became NASA later that year. She did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight," reads Nasa's biography on Johnson.

Her maths calculations were also instrumental in the Apollo Moon landing programme.

Last year, Nasa celebrated her 100th birthday in 2018 with a special ceremony.

In 2016, a Hollywood movie Hidden Figures, starring Taraji P Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer, based on the stories of Johnson and her African American colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, was released.

Johnson was the last surviving among the three.

Former US President Barack Obama presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the country, in 2015.

Two years later, Johnson -- then aged 98 -- attended the 2017 Oscars when "Hidden Figures" was nominated, taking the stage to receive a standing ovation.

"Ms Johnson helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of colour," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.

Additional reporting by AFP.

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