Hidden figures

This international women’s day we remember a true trailblazer, mathematics genius and NASA icon.

6th March 2021

This Monday (8 March) is International Women’s day, a day when we celebrate the amazing social, cultural, economic and political achievements of women — while also campaigning for greater progress towards gender equality.

“We cannot all succeed, when half of us are held back.”
-Malala Yousafzai

Earlier this year we lost one of the words’ most passionate champions of gender equality, Ruth Bader-Ginsberg (read our blog here). 2020 also saw us lose another awe-inspiring woman: Katherine G. Johnson. If her name is unfamiliar, perhaps you’ll recognise her from the movie “Hidden Figures”, where she was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson.

Born in White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia in 1918 and studied French and mathematics (after skipping several classes at school). First she worked as a teacher, then she spent some time at home to focus on her three daughters and, in 1953, began working at the NACA’s West Area Computing Unit, where Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were also employed. For several years she was primarily analysing flight data.

During her 33-year career at NASA and its predecessor, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks. The space agency noted her “historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist”.

Johnson’s work included calculating trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return paths for Project Mercury spaceflights, including those for astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American in orbit, and rendezvous paths for the Apollo Lunar Module and command module on flights to the Moon. Her calculations were also essential to the beginning of the Space Shuttle program, and she worked on plans for a mission to Mars.

Katherine Johnson at the opening of the NASA Computational Research Facility named after her, in 2017

Next time we look up at the moon of course we’ll think of Neil, Buzz and Michael, but it’s about time Katherine Johnson got a mention as a hero in the story too.

Not all innovations and ground breaking advances result in patent filings, but the lack of IP protection does not diminish the work of such a remarkable woman.

Katherine died on 24 February 2020.

At Patently we passionately believe in equal opportunities, and have begun the process of meeting the commitments to enable us to sign the IPInclusive equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) charter.

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