Just over a year ago, when we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, I talked about the lack of diversity in space and mentioned Mary Jackson. In 2016, the movie Hidden Figures shared the stories of Mary Jackson and two other Black female mathematicians – Katherine Johnson and, Dorothy Vaughan. They worked at NASA when a ‘computer’ still meant a person carrying out mathematical calculations. The film is based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, which I am reading at the moment. The book offers a more detailed and accurate account of the prejudice these women (and others) had to overcome.

Last year NASA named the street in front of its headquarters in Washington, D.C., Hidden Figures Way, in their honour.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, US Senator Ted Cruz and Margot Lee Shetterly, unveil the “Hidden Figures Way” street sign at a dedication ceremony. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Now NASA has gone one step further and announced that the HQ building itself will be renamed to the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building.

“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. Today, we proudly announce the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building. It appropriately sits on ‘Hidden Figures Way,’ a reminder that Mary is one of many incredible and talented professionals in NASA’s history who contributed to this agency’s success. Hidden no more, we will continue to recognize the contributions of women, African Americans, and people of all backgrounds who have helped construct NASA’s successful history to explore.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine

When Mary W. Jackson began working for NASA, as a computer at Langley Research Center, she had to work in the segregated West Area Computing Unit.

Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building in Washington, D.C. Credit: NASA

“We are honored that NASA continues to celebrate the legacy of our mother and grandmother Mary W. Jackson. 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.” 

Carolyn Lewis, Mary’s daughter

After two years in the computing pool, Jackson started working in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a wind tunnel capable of blasting models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound. Eventually, her supervisor suggested a training program that would allow Jackson to become an engineer. However, Jackson needed special permission to take classes with white students at a segregated high school. 

Having completed the classes, Jackson earned her promotion and became NASA’s first Black female engineer in 1958. In an engineering career spanning nearly 20 years, she focused on the behaviour of the boundary layer of air around aeroplanes. 

In 1979, she joined Langley’s Federal Women’s Program. She worked hard to address the hiring and promotion of female mathematicians, engineers and scientists until she retired from Langley in 1985.

“NASA facilities across the country are named after people who dedicated their lives to push the frontiers of the aerospace industry. The nation is beginning to awaken to the greater need to honor the full diversity of people who helped pioneer our great nation. Over the years NASA has worked to honor the work of these Hidden Figures in various ways, including naming facilities, renaming streets and celebrating their legacy. We know there are many other people of color and diverse backgrounds who have contributed to our success, which is why we’re continuing the conversations started about a year ago with the agency’s Unity Campaign. NASA is dedicated to advancing diversity, and we will continue to take steps to do so.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine

To learn more about Mary W. Jackson and the other “Hidden Figures”, visit https://www.nasa.gov/modernfigures