8 May 2017

Astronaut, NASA scientist touch down in NZ

11:33 am on 8 May 2017

A visiting NASA astronaut has paid homage to the "marvelous ancestry of astral navigation" of early Polynesian settlers, saying the agency now uses similar techniques to bring astronauts home from space.

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Photo: 123RF

Hundreds of people crowded into Te Rauparaha arena to hear NASA astronaut Yvonne Cagle who's in New Zealand as part of a Space and Science event running until 20 May.

Hidden Figures tells the story of three African-American women who worked at NASA during the Space Race.

Before the film started, Yvonne Cagle introduced herself to the audience and gave a homage to early Polynesian settlers who used stellar markers to navigate vast amounts of ocean.

"I've had such a wonderful time in your wonderful country.

"The only reason that I was able to land here today is because of your marvellous ancestry of astral navigation and using so many things to navigate.

"Astronaut crews, when we're coming home from space we actually use star pairs to verify, validate and vector our way back home.

"So this is a homecoming to be able to come here and we thank you for that capability."

Dr Cagle is also a medical doctor and before being selected by NASA, she served in the US Air Force as a senior flight surgeon.

She was joined at the event by senior NASA scientist Jen Blank, who works with data collected from the Curiosity Rover exploring Gale Crater on Mars.

She said she had been to New Zealand many times and had convinced Dr Cagle to visit as well.

Dr Jen Blank, NASA scientist (left) and Dr Yvonne Cagle, NASA astronaut.

NASA scientist Jen Blank and astronaut Yvonne Cagle at the viewing in Porirua yesterday. Photo: RNZ / Jacob McSweeny

After a couple of speeches the crowd settled in for the film.

It tells the story of Katherine Johnson, an African-American mathematician, and her colleagues who calculated flight trajectories for NASA and helped the first American to orbit the earth.

Dr Cagle wheeled a 98-year-old Dr Johnson out onto the stage at the Oscars earlier this year and said it was an honour to be able to carry on her philosophy.

"I was able to spend a lot of personal time with Dr Katherine Johnson, one of the 'hidden figures'.

"She has shared so many messages for the world and for young people learning and this is a great opportunity to be the messenger and the ambassador of her vision and dream."

Dr Blank said the movie sent an inspiring message.

"There are possibilities for everybody.

"The most important contributions might come from sectors where you wouldn't imagine.

"I think that's one of the wonderful things about Hidden Figures is it highlights this very substantial contribution from people most of us didn't even know about."

Porirua mayor Mike Tana said the event was a chance for the city to celebrate women and diversity.

"Yvonne also has a life where she's brought African-American women to the forefront of space travel.

"That's what we want to celebrate. We want to celebrate our women in Porirua, in New Zealand.

"Having these two iconic women coming and spending time with us is pretty special."

Yesterday's event was part of the Space and Science festival, which started on Saturday with the NASA pair being welcomed at Hongoeka Marae and runs until 20 May.

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