NASA’s first black female engineer, the late Mary W. Jackson, is receiving public tribute as the space agency renames their D.C. building the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters in her honor, they announced on June 24.
“Mary W. Jackson was part of a group of very important women who helped NASA succeed in getting American astronauts into space,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine explained in a statement. “Mary never accepted the status quo,” he added, “she helped break barriers and open opportunities for African Americans and women in the field of engineering and technology.”
Jackson began her engineering career in the segregated West Area Computing Unit of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, NASA said. Notably, she was one of only three women who worked on astronaut John Glenn’s 1962 orbital mission, resulting in the United States beating the Soviet Union in the space race.
Jackson immersed herself in both complex research and diversity advocacy throughout her career and later received a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
After her passing in 2005, the engineer’s daughter, Carolyn Jackson, described her as “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.”
Jackson was born in Hampton, Virginia, in 1921. She earned a dual-major degree in math and physical sciences in 1942 and worked as a teacher, bookkeeper, and Army secretary before joining what was then the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (later to become NASA) in 1951.
As research mathematicians, Jackson and her colleagues were referred to by their superiors as “computers in skirts,” reported Daily Mail. Jackson, however, succeeded in rising in the ranks.
After helping the United States win the space race, she worked on the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel before seeking special permission to attend then-segregated Hampton High School for further education. Having already impressed her supervisor, it was granted, and Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer in 1958.
As an engineer, Jackson used her authority and experience to advocate on behalf of minorities in the field of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), working at Langley’s Federal Women’s Program in 1979 to help influence the hiring of the next generation of female STEM professionals.
Jackson retired in 1985 and died two decades later at the age of 83.
The pioneering NASA engineer’s story remained largely untold until after her passing but gained national attention when she was featured in Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.”
Actress and singer Janelle Monáe played Jackson in the movie adaptation that followed.
In 2019, Jackson and her fellow “Hidden Figures,” protagonists Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Christine Darden, were awarded Congressional Gold Medals. Congress also voted to rename the street outside NASA’s D.C. headquarters Hidden Figures Way in their collective honor, reports CNN.
Jackson’s legacy continues to reverberate with the renaming of NASA’s D.C. headquarters in 2020.
“Hidden no more,” NASA’s Jim Bridenstine announced, “we will continue to recognize the contributions of women, African Americans, and people of all backgrounds who have helped construct NASA’s successful history to explore.”