A female engineer best known for being overlooked is now stepping permanently into the limelight. Mary W. Jackson, the first Black engineer to work for NASA and one of the pioneering women portrayed in the 2016 film Hidden Figures, has become the namesake of NASA’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. Ms. Jackson gained fame from the movie (and the book on which it was based) due to the vital but unheralded role that she and other women of color played in helping the U.S. win its space race with the U.S.S.R. in the 1950s and ‘60s.
In 1951, Jackson started work as a research mathematician for what was then called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, VA. Her job was to be a “human computer”—that is, one of hundreds of women who performed mathematical calculations by hand before electronic computers were available to do the job. These calculations, which defined the trajectories of rockets that the U.S hoped to send into orbit, were critical to the early space program.
Today’s female astronauts stand on the shoulders of trailblazers like Mary Jackson
Yet while their calculations might have been essential, the female computers themselves were not treated as such. Most of these computers were Black women with college degrees in mathematics. At Langley, in observance of the Jim Crow laws still in effect in Virginia at the time, they were segregated into the West Area Computing Section, where they had their own bathrooms, cafeterias and workspaces separate from white employees.
This was where Ms. Jackson worked when she was initially hired. In 1953, though, a NASA engineer named Kazimierz Czarnecki asked Ms. Jackson to work with him on wind tunnel research essential to aircraft design. At Czarnecki’s urging, Ms. Jackson began working on earning a promotion to engineer. To complete the requisite graduate-level courses in mathematics and physics, she had to petition the City of Hampton for permission to attend night school classes at all-white Hampton High. Once her coursework was complete, though, NASA promoted Ms. Jackson, making her the agency’s first Black female engineer. She continued to work for NASA in a variety of roles until her retirement in 1985.
In 2019, Mary Jackson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for her work supporting the space program as well as for advancing the careers of many female mathematicians, scientists and engineers.
The path into space exploration for U.S. women has never been easy, and today’s female astronauts stand on the shoulders of trailblazers like Mary Jackson and others who’ve persisted in the face of many challenges. Learn more about their stories and the potential future for women in space here.