On Wednesday, June 24 NASA announced that it is naming its Washington, D.C. headquarters after aerospace engineer and mathematician Mary W. Jackson.
Jackson became the agency’s first Black female engineer in 1958, opening up opportunities for countless women of color in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Known as a ‘Hidden Figure‘ Jackson’s story was highlighted in the eponymous film released in 2017.
According to Scientific Women, Jackson was born and raised in Hampton, Virginia, and graduated from Hampton Institute in 1942 with a dual degree in math and physical sciences. The article further states, Jackson married Levi Jackson, started a family, and worked as a U.S. Army secretary before her aerospace career took off.
In 1951, Jackson was recruited by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which was succeeded by NASA in 1958. Jackson began her NASA career working under fellow “Hidden Figure” Dorothy Vaughanin in the segregated West Area Computing Unit of Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. She was a research mathematician who became known as one of the human computers at Langley.
After receiving hands-on experience conducting experiments, her supervisor suggested she enter a training program to be promoted from mathematician to engineer. However, since the classes were held at then-segregated Hampton High School, Jackson needed special permission to join her white peers in the classroom.
Following the completion of the courses, Jackson earned the promotion, and in 1958 became NASA’s first Black female engineer. For nearly two decades during her engineering career, she authored or co-authored research mainly focused on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. In 1979, she joined Langley’s Federal Women’s Program, influencing the hiring and promotion of women in NASA’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. According to CNN, along with the other three ‘Hidden Figures’, Jackson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2019.
A statement by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine declares, “Mary W. Jackson was part of a group of very important women who helped NASA succeed in getting American astronauts into space. Mary never accepted the status quo, she helped break barriers and open opportunities for African Americans and women in the field of engineering and technology. Today, we proudly announce the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building. It appropriately sits on ‘Hidden Figures Way,’ a reminder that Mary is one of many incredible and talented professionals in NASA’s history who contributed to this agency’s success. Hidden no more, we will continue to recognize the contributions of women, African Americans, and people of all backgrounds who have made NASA’s successful history of exploration possible.”