NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced on Wednesday, 24 June, that the agency’s headquarters building in Washington, D.C., will be named after Mary W. Jackson, the first African American female engineer at NASA.
Jackson started her NASA career in the segregated West Area Computing Unit of the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Jackson, a mathematician and aerospace engineer, went on to lead programs influencing the hiring and promotion of women in NASA’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers.
In 1951, Jackson was recruited by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which in 1958 was succeeded by NASA. She started as a research mathematician who became known as one of the human computers at Langley. She worked under fellow “Hidden Figure” Dorothy Vaughan in the segregated West Area Computing Unit.
After two years in the computing pool, Jackson received an offer to work in the 4-foot by 4-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel capable of blasting models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound. There, she received hands-on experience conducting experiments. Her supervisor eventually suggested she enter a training program that would allow Jackson to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer. Because the classes were held at then-segregated Hampton High School, Jackson needed special permission to join her white peers in the classroom.
Jackson completed the courses, earned the promotion, and in 1958 became NASA’s first Black female engineer. For nearly two decades during her engineering career, she authored and co-authored research on numerous reports, most focused on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. In 1979, she joined Langley’s Federal Women’s Program, where she worked hard to address the hiring and promotion of the next generation of female mathematicians, engineers and scientists. Mary retired from Langley in 1985.
NASA’s Headquarters will be named the Mary W Jackson NASA Headquarters. Mary Jackson was @NASA‘s first African-American female engineer. She elevated America’s space program & led towards inclusion. Looking forward to holding a formal naming ceremony soon. https://t.co/R5tYNKPYNS pic.twitter.com/vKuIzMwpGN
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) June 24, 2020
The work of the West Area Computing Unit where Jackson worked caught widespread national attention in the 2016 Margot Lee Shetterly book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.” The book was made into a popular movie that same year and Jackson’s character was played by award-winning actress Janelle Monáe.
In 2019, President Donald J. Trump signed the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act that posthumously awarded the honor to Jackson, who passed away in 2005,
“NASA facilities across the country are named after people who dedicated their lives to push the frontiers of the aerospace industry. The nation is beginning to awaken to the greater need to honor the full diversity of people who helped pioneer our great nation. Over the years NASA has worked to honor the work of these Hidden Figures in various ways, including naming facilities, renaming streets and celebrating their legacy,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine