Women who paved the way...

by Zoe Reed

With International Women’s day approaching, I have sought to take a look at some pioneering women in the data world - both past and present. We will be kicking off with Katherine Johnson - an African American data scientist who contributed tremendously to the field of aeronautics.

In 1953 Johnson began working at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) in the West Area Computing Unit. Not only were work opportunities for women with STEM degrees limited at the time, with many such women becoming teachers, NACA was racially segregated. The West Area Computing Unit was a group of African American women who manually carried out complex mathematical calculations for engineers at NACA. Roles as computers enabled women to access work in aeronautical research where it was otherwise very difficult to do so. The women at the West Area Computing Unit were credited by engineers for carrying out mathematical computations 'more rapidly and accurately than they [the engineers] could’, and the work of these women was crucial to the success of the Early U.S. space programme.

Johnson didn’t spend long in the West Computers Office, though, as soon after joining she attained an engineering position as an aerospace technologist – a huge achievement in a time when very few women were being hired as engineers.

In 1958 NACA was incorporated into the newly formed NASA, which banned segregation. While working at NASA Johnson was part of the Space Task Group – a group with the objective of achieving human spaceflight. Johnson coauthored a paper about calculations for placing a spacecraft into orbit  with one of the group’s engineers, marking the first time a woman of her division received credit as an author of a research report.

In 1961 Johnson made a groundbreaking achievement - she calculated the path for the Freedom 7, the space capsule that launched the first U.S. astronaut into space.

Johnson was also part of the team that calculated where and when to launch the rocket for the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, which successfully sent the first three men to the Moon and back.