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NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (C) with producer Caroline Waterlow (L) and director Ezra Edelman (R) of "Hidden Figures." Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose calculations helped astronauts reach orbit and eventually land on the Moon, died Monday at 101.

Why it matters: Her work, dramatized in the 2016 film "Hidden Figures," helped to create some of the agency's core mathematical principles behind manned space travel.

  • While she wasn't the first black woman to work as a NASA mathematician, her barrier-breaking story was key in recognizing the achievements that African American scientists contributed to spaceflight during the 1960s.

The big picture: Johnson's work "was overshadowed in the popular imagination by the life-risking astronauts whose flights she calculated, and to a lesser extent by the department heads under whom she served," the Washington Post writes.

  • Former President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
  • She downplayed the importance of her role in the early years of the space program after the release of "Hidden Figures," telling the Post in 2017 that she was "just doing [her] job."

The bottom line, via the lead sentence of the New York Times' obituary: "They asked Katherine Johnson for the Moon, and she gave it to them."

Go deeper: Why an all-female spacewalk took so long

Go deeper

Dave Lawler, author of World
41 mins ago - World

China's Xi Jinping congratulates Biden on election win

Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a message to President-elect Biden on Wednesday to congratulate him on his election victory, according to the Xinhua state news agency.

Why it matters: China's foreign ministry offered Biden a belated, and tentative, congratulations on Nov. 13, but Xi had not personally acknowledged Biden's win. The leaders of Brazil, Mexico and Russia are among the very few leaders still declining to congratulate Biden.

Kendall Baker, author of Sports
2 hours ago - Sports

College basketball is back

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A new season of college basketball begins Wednesday, and the goal is clear: March Madness must be played.

Why it matters: On March 12, 2020, the lights went out on college basketball, depriving teams like Baylor (who won our tournament simulation), Dayton, San Diego State and Florida State of perhaps their best chance to win a national championship.

2 hours ago - World

Scoop: Israeli military prepares for possibility Trump will strike Iran

Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a cabinet meeting. Photo: Abir Sultan/POOL/AFP via Getty

The Israel Defense Forces have in recent weeks been instructed to prepare for the possibility that the U.S. will conduct a military strike against Iran before President Trump leaves office, senior Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: The Israeli government instructed the IDF to undertake the preparations not because of any intelligence or assessment that Trump will order such a strike, but because senior Israeli officials anticipate “a very sensitive period” ahead of Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20.