Jackson’s career at NASA began at the then-segregated West Area Computing Unit. | Image: NASA
NASA has announced it will name its headquarters in Washington DC after the agency’s first Black female engineer, Mary Jackson.
Jackson started work at NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), in 1951 at the then-segregated West Area Computing Unit. She took night classes in mathematic and physics to qualify as an engineer in 1958, before rising to achieve the most senior title within the engineering department in 1979. Her work at the agency, along with that of fellow Black female engineers and mathematicians, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, was told in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.
“Mary W. Jackson was part of a group of very important women who helped NASA succeed in getting American astronauts into space,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a press statement. “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.”
Jackson’s daughter, Carolyn Lewis, said she felt honored that NASA continued to celebrate her mother’s legacy. “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,” said Lewis in a press statement.
The decision to name the headquarters comes during an ongoing reckoning with the physical legacies of racial injustice in the US and around the world. NASA has been implicated in this movement, as one of its main campuses, the Stennis Space Center, is named after senator John C. Stennis, a vocal advocate for racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s — the same laws that made Mary Jackson’s life and work so difficult.
In response to a campaign to rename the Stennis building launched this week, NASA said it was “aware of conversations about renaming facilities” and is having “ongoing discussions with the NASA workforce on the topic.”
Jackson’s work at the agency included studying aerodynamics in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a 4-foot by 4-foot wind tunnel that generated gusts of wind almost twice the speed of sound. In order to undertake her training to be an engineer, Jackson had to petition the local government to study alongside her white peers at the then-segregated Hampton High School. She then became an aerospace engineer specializing in aerodynamics in 1958, co-authoring her first report that same year: “Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition on Cones at Supersonic Speeds.”
After attaining the highest engineering title at NASA by 1979, Jackson took a demotion to become Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. In that role she was able to help guide and encourage the next generation of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. She retired from the agency in 1985 and died in 2005 at the age of 83.
The story of Jackson and the other groundbreaking Black female mathematicians working at NASA in the 1960s, during the height of both the Space Race and the civil rights movement, was told in the 2016 film Hidden Figures, based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. Jackson was played in the film by Janelle Monáe.
“Today, we proudly announce the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building,” said NASA”s Bridenstine in a statement. “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.”