Hundreds attend service for NASA pioneer Katherine Johnson

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A portrait of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson faces guests prior to a memorial service in her honor on Saturday, March 7, 2020, at Hampton University Convocation Center in Hampton, Va. Johnson, a mathematician who calculated rocket trajectories and earth orbits for NASA’s early space missions and was later portrayed in the 2016 hit film “Hidden Figures,” about pioneering black female aerospace workers died on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. She was 101. (Kaitlin McKeown /The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

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HAMPTON, Va. (AP) — Three black astronauts joined hundreds of other mourners Saturday at a memorial service for pioneering African American mathematician and NASA researcher Katherine Johnson.

Johnson, who calculated rocket trajectories and Earth orbits for NASA’s early space missions and was later portrayed in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures,” about pioneering black female aerospace workers, died Feb. 24 at the age of 101.

More than 700 people turned out for Saturday’s memorial service at the Hampton University Convocation Center.

“I think about the journey that she’s going on now,” astronaut Leland Melvin said. “We can’t calculate the speed that she’s traveling to get to heaven.”

Melvin was joined by fellow astronauts Yvonne Cagle and Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space.

Johnson was remembered not just as a pioneering researcher, but as a faithful church leader and family matriarch.

“Grandma, because of you, our world will forever be unlimited,” grandson Michael Moore said. “And because of you, I have no bounds.”

Her family received an outpouring of tributes, some of which were read during the service.

Former President Barack Obama, who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, called her a “hero to millions” in a letter to her family. First Lady Melania Trump said she “took our nation to remarkable heights.”

Clayton Turner, director of NASA’s Langley Research Center, spoke at the service and presented Johnson’s family with the flag that was flying over the center when she died.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said during the ceremony that he knew Johnson and her second husband, James Johnson, for years before he ever read Margot Lee Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures” about Johnson and her colleagues’ work as “human computers.”

“There are few people who fought as good a fight, finished as difficult a course and all along kept the faith as Katherine Johnson,” Scott said.

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