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NASA Names D.C. Headquarters for ‘Hidden Figure’ and Engineer Mary Jackson

Jackson may have been the only African American woman aeronautical engineer in the 1950s

Mary Jackson was the first African American woman engineer at NASA. She worked at the agency from 1951 to 1985. (Courtesy of NASA)
smithsonianmag.com

NASA announced on Wednesday that it has renamed its D.C. headquarters after Mary Jackson, the first African American woman to work as an engineer for the agency.

Jackson began working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s predecessor, in 1951. She first worked in the West Area Computing section at the segregated Langley Laboratory, alongside other African American women mathematicians like Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan; the trio’s stories center in the book and movie “Hidden Figures.” Jackson was later promoted to engineer, and worked at NASA until she retired in 1985. Jackson was 83 years old when she died in 2005.

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

The building at Two Independence Square was previously known by its address or simply as the NASA headquarters, Robert Pearlman reports for Space. But as of June 24, it is known as the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building. The decision comes as many institutions are reckoning with the legacies of racial injustice. Some have raised questions about the Stennis Space Center, named after senator John C. Stennis who advocated for racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, James Vincent writes for the Verge.

In the 1940s, civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph proposed a march on Washington to protest the exclusion of African Americans from World War II defense jobs and New Deal programs. After meeting with Randolph a day before the march was supposed to take place, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order to prevent racial discrimination when hiring for federal work, Maya Wei-Haas reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2016. Only after the executive order did NACA’s Langley Center only began hiring African Americans. And in order to become an engineer at NASA, Jackson had to petition to attend classes at the then-segregated Hampton High School.

“Never one to flinch in the face of a challenge, Mary completed the courses, earned the promotion, and in 1958 became NASA’s first black female engineer,” NASA writes in her biography. “…in the 1950s, she very well may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field.”

During Jackson’s two decade-long engineering career at NASA, she authored about a dozen research papers focused on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. She began her work in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, which buffeted model aircraft with winds blowing at almost double the speed of sound. In 1979, Jackson became Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager, where she assisted with the hiring and promotion of NASA’s women engineers, scientists and mathematicians until her retirement in 1985.

The “hidden figures” were brought to the public’s attention with Margot Lee Shetterly’s book and the following movie adaptation, where Janelle Monáe portrayed Jackson. Since then, the segment of street with NASA’s headquarters has been renamed “Hidden Figures Way,” and in 2017, NASA opened the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.

In 2019, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were awarded Congressional Gold Medals for their contributions to NASA’s successes during the space race. Because Jackson passed away in 2005, her medal was given to her granddaughter Wanda Jackson.

“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,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine says in the statement. “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.”

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