Mary Winston Jackson loved science and she loved people. She was the first female African American engineer at NASA. The agency is proud to announce that its Washington, D.C., headquarters building now bears her name.
Jackson is one of the “hidden figures” in Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. Born in 1921, Jackson overcame discrimination to become a professional mathematician and aerospace engineer.
“Mary W. Jackson was part of a group of very important women who helped NASA succeed in getting American astronauts into space,” explains NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. All along, she influenced the hiring and promotion of women in NASA’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers.
“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,” says Bridenstine.
God gave Mrs. Jackson a brilliant mind and a heart that recognized the dignity and equality of all human life. In 1951, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics recruited Jackson. (That committee became NASA in 1958.) She worked in the segregated (separated by race) West Area Computing Unit as a research mathematician. Jackson quickly became known as one of the human “computers” (meaning she could perform complex mathematical computations) at Langley Research Center, in Hampton, Virginia.
Two years later, Jackson began working in Langley’s Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. There, she gained hands-on experience conducting math and science experiments. Soon after, Jackson took a promotion. She entered a training program for engineers.
The engineering classes were offered at the then-segregated Hampton High School. Jackson had to ask for permission to be allowed to join her white peers in class. She completed the courses, earned her promotion, and made history as NASA’s first black female engineer.
For nearly 20 years, Jackson authored and co-authored research reports. Most focused on the behavior of the layer of air surrounding airplanes.
In 1979, Jackson joined Langley’s Federal Women’s Program. She worked to promote a new generation of female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. Jackson stayed at Langley until her retirement in 1985.
In 2019, President Trump signed the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act. He awarded the honor posthumously to Jackson, who passed away in 2005. NASA now takes its turn in honoring her life’s work by naming its headquarters for her.
“NASA facilities across the country are named after people who dedicated their lives to push the frontiers of the aerospace industry,” says Bridenstine. Mary Jackson pushed frontiers on Earth—and beyond.