Mary Jackson: NASA’s first African American female aeronautical engineer

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |

Updated: June 26, 2020 12:37:04 pm

This 1977 photo made available by NASA shows engineer Mary W. Jackson at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. (Robert Nye/NASA via AP)
Joining the tidal wave of organisations in the United States that have promised efforts towards thwarting systemic racism in the country, space agency NASA Wednesday announced its headquarters in the nation’s capital would be named after Mary W. Jackson (1921-2005), the agency’s first African American female engineer.
“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,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “Today, we proudly announce the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building.”

Who was Mary Jackson?
Born in an era when racial segregation was legal in the United States, Jackson first worked as a math teacher at a black school in Maryland state after she graduated with a dual degree in Math and Physical Sciences from the historically black Hampton Institute (now Hampton University).
Jackson went through a number of career changes before making history at NASA. Post her stint as a teacher, Jackson worked as a receptionist at a non-profit in her native state of Virginia, which catered to the local African American population. Following this, she worked as a bookkeeper at her alma mater, spent time at home after the birth of her son, and then worked at the now decommissioned Fort Monroe military base.
It was in 1951 that Jackson joined the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (currently the NASA Langley Research Center), and worked in the racially segregated West Area Computing Unit. Here, Jackson reported to Dorothy Vaughan, another pioneering African American female researcher.
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Mary Jackson’s work at NASA
Having first worked in human computing, Jackson went on to study wind tunnels; eventually entering a training programme to get promoted from mathematician to engineer. The after-work classes where the training took place were conducted in a segregated high school, and Jackson had to obtain permission to be allowed to attend with her white classmates.

After completing the courses, Jackson in 1958 became NASA’s first African American female engineer. According to the space agency’s website, it is possible that Jackson might have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the male-dominated field at the time. Over the next two decades, she worked at several NASA departments, and authored or co-authored 12 technical papers before retiring in 1985.
Jackson also worked at the Federal Women’s Program, the NASA Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, and the Affirmative Action Program, where she furthered the role of women in NASA’s science, engineering, and mathematics careers. Jackson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States in 2019.
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NASA’s ‘Hidden Figures’
In 2016, the work of the West Area Computing Unit — where Jackson first worked — achieved international fame after the release of the book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” and the Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures” that the book inspired.
The Washington, DC headquarters which has now been named after Jackson is also located on a street called ‘Hidden Figures Way,’ named so in 2019.
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Bridenstine said “… 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.”
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