Mary Winston Jackson broke down racial and gender barriers to become the first black female engineer at NASA. Now, 15 years after her passing, the space agency has announced that their headquarters building in Washington D.C. will pay tribute to the pioneer who paved the way for generations of women and African Americans after her.
“Today, we proudly announce the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building,” NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine said in a statement on Wednesday. “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.”
Dr Mae Jemison was the first black woman to travel to space in 1992 as part of the Endeavor mission.
After graduating with a dual degree in Math and Physical Sciences in 1942, Jackson accepted a teaching post in Maryland. However, a year later she returned to her hometown of Hampton, Virginia, as it had become a nerve center for the US’ World War II home front effort. Two jobs and the start of a family later, in 1951 Jackson was recruited by NASA’s precursor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), into the segregated West Area Computing section at the Langley laboratory.
The work of Jackson and fellow “human computers” at Langley, including Katherine Johnson, was the subject of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures and depicted in the 2016 film of the same name, where Jackson was portrayed by award-winning actress Janelle Monáe.
As shown in the film, Jackson left the computing pool after two years to work in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel capable of blasting models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound. Encouraged by her supervisor to retrain as an engineer, Jackson sought special permission to take night classes at the then-segregated Hampton High School in order to gain this promotion. Her determination and hard work meant that in 1958, she became NASA’s first black female engineer.
Over the next two decades, Jackson authored or co-authored a dozen or so research reports that predominantly focused on the behavior at the boundary layer of air around airplanes. Struggling to break through the glass ceiling to management level, Jackson left aeronautical engineering behind in 1979 to become Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. In this position, she influenced the hiring and promotion of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists, before retiring in 1985.
As well as receiving many honors whilst working at NASA, including Langley’s Volunteer of the Year in 1976, Jackson has continued to be recognized for her achievements in retirement and after her death in 2005. In particular, she posthumously received a congressional gold medal in 2019, along with fellow “hidden figures”, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Dr Christine Darden.
“We are honored that NASA continues to celebrate the legacy of our mother and grandmother Mary W. Jackson,” Jackson’s daughter Carolyn Lewis, said in a statement referring to the naming of NASA HQ. “She was a scientist, humanitarian, wife, mother, and trailblazer who paved the way for thousands of others to succeed, not only at NASA, but throughout this nation.”
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