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Mary Jackson, a pioneer who opened the doors to space, despite segregation

Portrait of Mary Jackson in 1979
Credit: NASA Langley Research Center
Portrait of Mary Jackson in 1979
  • Portrait of Mary Jackson in 1979
  • Photo of the staff of the supersonic pressure tunnel at Langley Laboratory in 1956. The "human computer" women are on the front row. Mary Jackson is on the far right.
  • Mary Jackson in the wind tunnel at Langley Laboratory in 1977.
  • NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, left, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, second from left, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, third from left, and Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book "Hidden Figures," right, unveil the "Hidden Figures Way" street
Mary Jackson, a pioneer who opened the doors to space, despite segregation

Mary Jackson played an important role in the space race in the 1960s. A talented mathematician, she was the first Afro-American woman to become an engineer at NASA, despite the racial segregation that prevailed at the time in the United States.

Mary Winston, to use her maiden name, was born in Hampton, Virginia, on April 9, 1921. In high school she excelled in mathematics and science. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physical science from Hampton University in 1942, after which she taught mathematics at a Black school in Calvert County, Maryland.

After filling a few jobs, Mary saw her career take a new direction when she was hired at NACA’s (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) Langley Research Center, the ancestor of NASA, as a “human computer” in 1951.

Becoming an engineer

Two years later, the engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki offered her a job on his wind tunnel team at the Langley Research Center. Quickly seeing her potential, Czarnecki encouraged Mary to enroll in a training program that would lead to her taking a degree in engineering.

Unfortunately, the school offering the appropriate courses, the University of Virginia’s Hampton High School, was reserved for whites. That difficulty failed to stop Mary, who filed a request with the City of Hampton for special authorization to attend the school. After numerous appeals, the city granted Mary an exemption that allowed her to begin her engineering training in the spring of 1956.

In 1958, Mary earned her degree and became the first Afro-American woman to be appointed engineer at NASA. The same year, with Czarnecki she signed a first aeronautics technical report.

In the course of her career at NASA, Mary Jackson wrote or co-wrote more than a dozen publications having primarily to do with the behavior of air around airplanes. She brought to her work an understanding of physical phenomena that transcended calculations.

Helping women and minorities have a career at NASA

Despite the quality of her work, Mary was never promoted to a management position at NASA. In 1979 she decided to give up her engineering duties, and accepted a demotion by agreeing to the position of manager of the Federal Women’s Program at Langley. That job allowed her to promote the recruitment and promotion of women and people from minorities to positions at NASA.

Numerous posthumous tributes

Mary Jackson retired from NASA in 1985. It was only afterwards that her work and her dedication were recognized. She received many distinctions, including the Apollo Group Achievement Award in 1969 for her contribution to NASA’s space programs. She passed away on February 11, 2005, at the age of 83.

In 2016, the author Margot Lee Shetterly wrote a book about these exceptional women titled Hidden Figures. The story was adapted for the movies the same year in a film directed by Theodore Melfi.

In 2019, the United States Congress posthumously conferred the Congressional Gold Medal on her, as well as on her colleagues Katherine Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan and Christine Darden.

Finally, in 2021, the NASA headquarters building in Washington, D.C. was renamed the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters. That building in Washington is located on Hidden Figures St.

Throughout her career, Mary Jackson fought against racial segregation. Her perseverance and the great quality of her work allowed her to break through the glass ceiling that existed at NASA. She was and remains to this day an inspiration for young women and people belonging to minorities interested in building a career at NASA and in science.

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