NASA pioneer Mary Jackson: how the ‘hidden figure’ became the space agency’s first black engineer

Earlier this week, NASA announced that it will rename its headquarters building in Washington DC after Mary W. Jackson, the space agency’s first black engineer.

“Jackson began his career at NASA in the segregated West Area Computing Unit of the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia,” NASA said in a statement, announcing the headquarters name change. “Jackson, a mathematician and aerospace engineer, led programs that influence the recruitment and advancement of women in NASA’s science, technology, engineering, and math careers.”

His path to becoming a NASA engineer was winding. Graduated in 1942 from the Hampton Institute, with a double degree in Mathematics and Physical Sciences, Jackson initially worked as a math teacher at a black school in Calvert County, Maryland, according to her NASA biography. She then worked as a receptionist at King Street USO Club in her hometown of Hampton, Virginia, before becoming an accountant in the Hampton Institute Health Department and later as an Army secretary at Fort Monroe. In 1951, Jackson joined the segregated Computing section of the West Area of ​​the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.


“After two years in the computer group, Mary Jackson received an offer to work for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the 4ft by 4ft Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel capable of flying models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound, “NASA explains on its website. “Czarnecki provided Mary with hands-on experience conducting on-site experiments and ultimately suggested that she enter a training program that would allow her to advance from mathematician to engineer.”

This 1977 photo made available by NASA shows engineer Mary W. Jackson at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.  - File photo.

This 1977 photo made available by NASA shows engineer Mary W. Jackson at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. – File photo.
(Robert Nye / NASA via AP)

“Students had to take graduate mathematics and physics in post-work courses administered by the University of Virginia,” added NASA. However, because classes were held at Hampton High School, Mary needed special permission from the City of Hampton to join her white classmates in the classroom. No one ever flinched at a challenge, Mary completed the courses, she won promotion, and in 1958 she became NASA’s first black engineer. “

That same year, she co-authored the report “Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition in Cones at Supersonic Speeds,” the first of a dozen research reports it would produce for the space agency.


Jackson retired from NASA in 1985 and died in 2005 at age 83. Janelle Monae played the pioneering engineer in the popular 2016 movie, “Hidden Figures.”

“Mary W. Jackson was part of a very important group of women who helped NASA get American astronauts into space,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in the statement. “Mary never accepted the status quo, she helped break down barriers and open opportunities for African Americans and women in the field of engineering and technology.”

“Hidden no more, we will continue to recognize the contributions of women, African Americans, and people of all backgrounds that have made NASA’s successful history of exploration possible,” she added.


Current and former astronauts paid tribute to Jackson’s accomplishments and his incredible legacy.

“I’m so excited to hear about this! Mary Jackson broke barriers and became a hero to many, including me. NASA was fortunate to have her on the team and will continue to harness her strength and abilities as her legacy inspires. and educate into the future, “tweeted astronaut Christina Koch, who returned earlier this year from a record 328-day season on the International Space Station.

“Congratulations Mary Jackson. Thank you for helping me and many others explore the Cosmos,” Leland Melvin tweeted, who served on the STS-122 and STS-129 space shuttle missions.


Part of the street in front of NASA headquarters is called “Hidden Figures Way” and a computer research facility in Langley is named after Katherine Johnson, another of the “Hidden Figures” math, who died in February. she in West Virginia, her home state.

Associated Press contributed to this article. Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers