Special to The Dallas Examiner
Jackson was born and raised in Hampton, Virginia, where she attended an all-Black training school. She went on to graduate from Hampton Institute in 1942 with a dual degree in math and physical sciences. Jackson initially accepted a job as a math teacher in an all-Black school in Calvert County, Maryland. She later worked as a bookkeeper before she got married and had children. After a while, she went back to work a job as a U.S. Army secretary.
In 1951, she accepted a position with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory’s segregated West Area Computing Unit. She started as a research mathematician who became known as one of the human computers at Langley. Another Black female mathematician, Dorothy Vaughan, was her supervisor. NASA succeeded the NACA in 1958.
After two years in West Computing, Jackson was offered a computing position in a 4×4 foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel working with engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki. In addition to her computing tasks, Czarnecki offered her hands-on experience conducting experiments in the facility and encouraged her to enter a training program that would allow her to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer. However, trainees had to take graduate-level math and physics in after-work courses managed by the University of Virginia, which were all-White classes at the then-segregated Hampton High School. To attend, she needed special permission from the city of Hampton to join her White peers in the classroom.
In 1958, she obtained the permission, completed the courses, and earned the promotion, becoming 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. By 1975, she had authored or co-authored a total of 12 NACA and NASA technical publications.
In 1976, she was honored with an Apollo Group Achievement Award, and named Langley’s Volunteer of the Year.
In 1979, seeing that the glass ceiling was the rule, rather than the exception for Langley’s female professionals, she made a final, dramatic career change, leaving engineering and voluntarily accepting a reduction-in-grade to serve as an administrator in the Equal Opportunity Specialist field. After undergoing training at NASA Headquarters, she returned to Langley and filled the open position of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. There, she worked hard to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists.
Jackson retired from Langley in 1985. She died on Feb. 11, 2005, at the age of 83.
The work of the West Area Computing Unit 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 the popular movie, Hidden Figures, that same year. Jackson’s character was played by award-winning actress Janelle Monáe.
In 2019, she was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. The Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act posthumously awarded the honor to Jackson, who passed away in 2005, and her colleagues Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Christine Darden.
That same year, after a bipartisan bill made its way through Congress, the portion of E Street Southwest in front of NASA Headquarters was renamed Hidden Figures Way.
On June 29, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the agency’s headquarters building in Washington, D.C., would be named after Mary W. Jackson, the first African American female engineer at 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. “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.”
The headquarters houses NASA’s high-level executives who provide overall guidance and direction to the agency, under Bridenstine’s leadership. It oversees activities conducted by 10 field centers and a variety of installations around the country that perform the day-to-day work in laboratories, on air fields, in wind tunnels and in control rooms.
“We are honored that NASA continues to celebrate the legacy of our mother and grandmother Mary W. Jackson,” said, Carolyn Lewis, Mary’s daughter. “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.”
Across the United States, NASA facilities have been named after people who were committed to “push the frontiers of the aerospace industry” – mostly White men. However recently, the country has awakened to the intense necessity to acknowledge and honor its full diversity of people who have blazed trails that have pushed the U.S. to its modern position.
“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,” Bridenstine concluded. “NASA is dedicated to advancing diversity, and we will continue to take steps to do so.”
Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-TX, first African American and woman to be elected to chair the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology, expressed enthusiasm regarding the announcement of the new name.
“I was pleased to hear that today NASA announced that the agency’s headquarters building will be named for Mary W. Jackson,” Johnson stated. “Mary Jackson was a dedicated public servant and barrier breaker, and I am proud that Congress awarded a Congressional Gold Medal to her and all her ‘Hidden Figures’ colleagues just a few months ago. Today’s announcement is a step forward in embracing and recognizing the true diversity of all of NASA’s talent. May the memory of Mary Jackson inspire the next generation of young women of color to follow their passions and persevere in the fight for equal representation and opportunities.”