Born: August 26, 1918;

Died: February 24, 2020.

KATHERINE Johnson, who has died aged 101, was a pioneering African-American mathematician who played a key role in the moon landings. At a time when black staff were rare at NASA and black female staff even rarer, she was a vital part of the team that calculated the trajectories for space missions – so vital that the astronaut John Glenn said he wouldn’t fly until Johnson had checked the figures.

For a long time, her considerable contribution to the space race was relatively unsung, until the 2016 film, Hidden Figures, brought her to greater prominence. It tells the story of Johnson and some of the other black female mathematicians who worked at NASA. They did so despite segregation in wider society and at NASA itself, where the women initially worked in a separate, racially segregated unit.

Her ability for the job was remarkable, reflecting her lifelong love for numbers which began when she obsessively counted things as a little girl. Her job at NASA was to calculate – by hand – trajectories and orbits so that rockets could take off and land in the right way. “You tell me when and where you want the rocket to come down, and I will tell you where and when and how to launch it”, she once said.

She worked on several ground-breaking missions as the space race gathered pace. In 1961, she calculated the path for Freedom 7, the spacecraft that enabled Alan Shepard to become the first American to travel into space, and in 1969 she helped calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon.

In 1962, she worked on the Friendship 7 mission in which John Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit the planet. The route had been calculated by one of the earliest computers at NASA, but Glenn was sceptical and asked for Johnson to check the numbers.

Johnson considered her work on the moon missions to be her greatest contribution to space exploration, but what was remarkable was how many obstacles she had had to overcome to get to NASA in the first place.

Katherine Coleman grew up in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, a small town with no schools for black children beyond the age of 14. Knowing their daughter was talented, her parents decided to move to another town 120 miles away so she could go to high school. She excelled there, and after graduating from university in maths and French, she taught at black public schools.

After marrying a chemistry teacher, James Goble, and starting a family, she gave up teaching for a while before taking the job at NASA’s research centre in Langley, Virginia, in 1953. She worked there for 30 years, initially in the racially segregated computing unit, which wasn’t officially dissolved until 1958. Initially, her work was on aeroplanes and other research before she moved to Project Mercury, the program to get a human into space. She worked on the Space Shuttle program before retiring in 1986.

In 2015, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was pre-deceased both by her first husband and her second, James Johnson. She is survived by two of her three daughters, six grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.