NASA renames HQ in honor of ‘Hidden Figure’ Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson grew up in Hampton, Virginia. After graduating with highest honors from high school, she then continued her education at Hampton Institute, earning her Bachelor of Science Degrees in Mathematics and Physical Science. Following graduation, Mary taught in Maryland prior to joining NASA. Mary retired from the NASA Langley Research Center in 1985 as an Aeronautical Engineer after 34 years. Credit: NASA

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced that the agency’s headquarters building in Washington, D.C., will be named in honor of Mary W. Jackson, the first African American female engineer at NASA.

The ‘Hidden Figure’ story of Mary Jackson and other African-American women trailblazers that helped launch America’s first astronauts safely into space and back including Alan Shepard and John Glenn became well known and famous after the publication of the book ‘Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Mary Jackson was hired in 1958 to become NASA’s first Black female engineer and worked for NASA until she retired in 1985. She passed away in 2005.

Now their remarkable story is no longer ‘Hidden’ and they will be long remembered as ‘human computers’ for NASA and trailblazers for African Americans.

Mary Winston Jackson (1921–2005) successfully overcame the barriers of segregation and gender bias to become a professional aerospace engineer and a leader in ensuring equal opportunities for future generations. Credit: NASA

“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,” said Bridenstine, in a June 24 statement.

“Today, we proudly announce the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building. 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.”

And the very welcome name change comes amidst weeks-long continuing nationwide protests against racial discrimination.

Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building in Washington, D.C. Credit: NASA

According to a NASA biography “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 2019, she was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.”

The life and legendary accomplishments of Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson and others on the team in the segregated West Area Computing Unit of the NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia went mostly unknown to the public until they were highlighted in the bestselling book 2016 book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly as well as the hit movie later that same year of the same name.

She was portrayed by award-winning actress Janelle Monáe. Katherine Johnson was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson. The musical score was created by Pharrell Williams.

The movie ‘Hidden Figures is outstanding and I highly recommend you see it – more than once!!

An official movie poster for the movie “Hidden Figures.”

“We are honored that NASA continues to celebrate the legacy of our mother and grandmother Mary W. Jackson,” said, Carolyn Lewis, Mary’s daughter, in a statement.

“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.”

Jackson’s fellow African-American female colleague NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson who was also a legendary trailblazing leader in civil rights, racial and gender equality passed away earlier this year on Feb. 24, at the phenomenal age of 101.

NASA research mathematician Katherine Johnson is photographed at her desk at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Born on Aug. 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson worked at Langley from 1953 until her retirement in 1986. Credit: NASA

Johnson calculated critical flight trajectories that helped launch America’s first astronauts safely into space and back including Alan Shepard and John Glenn and later helped land NASA’s Apollo 11 astronauts on the Moon.

In 2019, after a bipartisan bill by Sens. Ted Cruz, Ed Markey, John Thune, and Bill Nelson made its way through Congress, the portion of E Street SW in front of NASA Headquarters was renamed Hidden Figures Way.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book “Hidden Figures,” right, unveil the “Hidden Figures Way” street sign at a dedication ceremony at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. The 300 block of E Street SW in front of the NASA Headquarters building was designated as “Hidden Figures Way.” Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Jackson was born and raised in Hampton, Virginia. After graduating high school, she graduated from Hampton Institute in 1942 with a dual degree in math and physical sciences, and initially accepted a job as a math teacher in Calvert County, Maryland. She would work as a bookkeeper, marry Levi Jackson and start a family, and work a job as a U.S. Army secretary before her aerospace career would take off.

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.

Dorothy Vaughan (far left) served as the head of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) segregated West Area Computing Unit from 1949 until 1958. She was both a respected mathematician and NASA’s first African-American manager. Credit: B. Golemba

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 or co-authored research 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.

In 1967, Christine Darden was added to the pool of ‘human computers’ who wrote complex programs and tediously crunched numbers for engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center. In 1967, Christine Darden was added to the pool of ‘human computers’ who wrote complex programs and tediously crunched numbers for engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Eight years later she became one of the few female aerospace engineers at NASA Langley. Credit: NASA

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, and her “Hidden Figures” colleagues Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Christine Darden.

In 2017, then 99-year-old Katherine Johnson was there to personally dedicate a new state-of-the-art computer research facility the bears her name at Langley. Johnson, another original member of the West Area Computing Unit, also was honored as a trailblazer and given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. In addition, Johnson was part of the group honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, and NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation facility in Fairmont, West Virginia, also bears Johnson’s name.

NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation Facility, originally founded in 1993 to contribute to the safety and success of NASA’s highest-profile missions, was renamed in honor of human computer and storied NASA icon Katherine Johnson. The redesignation was marked with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Facility/Taylor Mickal

“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,” added Bridenstine. “We know there are many other people of color and diverse backgrounds who have contributed to our success, which is why we’re continuing the conversations started about a year ago with the agency’s Unity Campaign. NASA is dedicated to advancing diversity, and we will continue to take steps to do so.”

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