On this day in history, we honor the extraordinary life and legacy of Mary Jackson, a skilled mathematician, scientist, and aerospace engineer. Mary overcame segregation and gender bias to become NASA’s first Black female engineer in 1958. In the later part of her 34 years with NASA, she worked hard to ensure she would not be last.
From an early age, Mary Jackson excelled at math and science, graduating high school with distinction and earning a dual bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physical science from Hampton Institute in 1942. In this decade, the options for women—let alone Black women–with qualifications in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics were slim. Many settled for teaching positions, most fell back to typewriting. Mary, however, was not one to fold easily. Her love of science found some expression in a local Girl Scouts chapter, where she introduced children in her community to projects like miniature wind-tunnel experiments, but it would take a series of jobs—a stint as a math teacher, receptionist, and bookkeeper—and a global stage before Mary found an entry point into commissioned research.
Following World War II, the Space Race was underway and all eyes were on the US National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) founded in 1958. With international pressure to outstrip Russian spaceflight, NACA had a sudden and ravenous need for computation. But before the implementation of IBM computers to automate and verify hundreds of thousands of calculations needed for space flight, there were mathematicians that would perform those complex computations with pencils and graph paper. The growing need for human computers combined with a shortage of manpower from the war cracked open a door for women pursuing careers in STEM. In the years leading up to the 1955 Space Race, NACA is estimated to have hired several hundred women as computers at its research hub in Virginia.
Enter Mary Jackson. In 1951, NACA recruited Mary to work as a research mathematician, or human computer, at its inaugural research base, Langley Research Center. Located in Mary’s hometown of Hampton, Virginia, the 800-acre campus was not immune to the segregation laws governing the Jim Crow era. Mary joined a fleet of roughly 80 Black female mathematicians stationed in the segregated West Area Computing section to crunch numbers on flightpaths and other projects critical to NACA’s space program. Under the supervision of Dorothy Vaughn, these women helped support the launch and landing of John Glenn, the first American to “touch the stars.”
It didn’t take long for Mary’s brilliance and precision to distinguish her from the rest of the computing pool at NACA. Two years after accepting a position with the West Area Computing, Mary was assigned to work for Kazimierz Czarnecki, an aeronautics engineer conducting research on a Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. The 4 by 4-foot, 60,0000 horsepower wind tunnel was used to simulate supersonic flight, or air flow travelling nearly twice the speed of sound. With Czarnecki’s guidance, Mary was given her first real chance to conduct wind-tunnel experiments on aircrafts and gain hands-on experience in aeronautics. According to her biography (NASA.gov), Czarnecki suggested that Mary apply for a training program that would qualify her to become an aerospace engineer. There was just one catch: the program’s advanced extension courses were only offered under an all-White course at then-segregated Hampton High School.
Mary’s unflagging determination brought her to the floor of the city’s courtroom, where she stated her case to a judge and was granted special permission to take night courses. In 1958, Mary completed the program and was duly promoted, becoming the agency’s first Black female engineer. For the next two decades, Mary climbed the ranks of NASA’s engineering department, landing a spot in the Theoretical Aerodynamics Branch of the Subsonic-Transonic Aerodynamics Division. There, she analyzed data from wind tunnel and aircraft flight experiments that would shape the structures of US planes and published those findings in roughly a dozen research reports with breezy titles like “Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition on Cones at Supersonic Speeds.”
Although Mary retired from NASA in 1985, she and her husband continued mentoring young Langley recruits new to town and their career. Among her spate of achievements were back-to-back awards for volunteer work at Langley, a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal, and the renaming of NASA’s Washington D.C. headquarters in her honor. Mary Jackson passed away on February 11, 2005, which, today we reflect on in International Day for Women and Girls in Science. Her story is popularized in the 2016 Oscar-winning movie, “Hidden Figures,” but today, we hope her story will inspire others to continue on with the work that still lies ahead in making progress towards increasing the participation of women and other underrepresented communities in higher education within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
About the author:
Sabrina Skelly, Document Production and Proposal Associate
Sabrina is one of our amazing marketing staff and creative writer based in Portland, OR who has turned taking bad landscape pictures into an artform that her mom loves. She can be frequently found running along Portland by-ways and thoroughly enjoys the beauty of the Pacific Ocean. She has embraced her creative side not only through writing but channels into her drawings as well.