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article imageNASA headquarters building named for first black female engineer

By Karen Graham     Jun 25, 2020 in Technology
Washington - NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced Wednesday the agency’s headquarters building in Washington, D.C. will be named after Mary W. Jackson, the first African American female engineer at NASA.
The Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building appropriately sits on a street renamed Hidden Figures Way in 2019 - when a portion of E Street SW in front of NASA Headquarters received the new name. Hidden Figures is a reminder that Mary is one of many incredible and talented professionals in NASA’s history who contributed to the agency’s success.
"Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.” is the name of a 2016 Margot Lee Shetterly book that has received worldwide attention. The book was made into a movie that same year and starred award-winning actress Janelle Monáe, who played Jackson.
"Mary W. Jackson was part of a group of very important women who helped NASA succeed in getting American astronauts into space," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.
"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."
4X4 supersonic Pressure Tunnel staff taken in 1950s. (front row computers) L. Doris Barron; Amy Swan...
4X4 supersonic Pressure Tunnel staff taken in 1950s. (front row computers) L. Doris Barron; Amy Swann; Virginia Finch, Peggy White; Jean Pond; Evalyn Wells; Mary Korycinski; Doris Blanchard; Phyllis Henry; Mary Jackson.
NASA/Langley Research Center
From unknown figure to national prominence
Mary Jackson was born on April 9, 1921, and grew up in Hampton, Virginia. She graduated from the all-black George P. Phenix Training School with the highest honors. She then went on to earn bachelor's degrees in mathematics and physical science from Hampton University in 1942.
After working as a math teacher in Maryland and eventually getting married and starting a family, Mary ended up working as a U.S. Army secretary before her aerospace career would take off. And take off, it did in 1951.
IN 1951, Jackson was recruited by the predecessor to NASA, then called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Jackson was hired as a research mathematician who became known as one of the human computers at Langley. Remember now, this was at a time before computers became common in the workplace.
Good fortune would cast its light on Mary Jackson when in 1953, she received an offer to work with an engineer, Kazimierz Czarnecki, in the 4-foot by 4-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel capable of blasting models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound.
Left to right Vivian Merritt  Mary Jackson  James Jennings  and Katherine Johnson in 1984 photo. In ...
Left to right Vivian Merritt, Mary Jackson, James Jennings, and Katherine Johnson in 1984 photo. In 1958 Mary Jackson became NASA's first black female engineer. Both Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson are women featured in the book Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly.
NASA Image and Video Library
It was through the encouragement of Czarnecki that Jackson took the graduate-level courses in mathematics and physics that allowed her to be promoted to engineer status. The University of Virginia was offering a night school program. Mary had to get special permission from the city of Hampton to attend those classes held at the all-white Hampton High School.
The rest is history
After completing the courses, she was promoted to aerospace engineer in 1958 and became NASA's first black female engineer. Now keep in mind that in 1958, female aerospace engineers were a rarity, and Black female engineers were almost unheard of. Actually, she very well may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field.
For nearly 20 years, Jackson authored or co-authored numerous research reports, most focused on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. In 1979, realizing the "glass ceiling" was the rule rather than the exception for the center’s female professionals, she took a demotion and left to fill the open position of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager.
There, Jackson was deeply involved in the hiring and promotion of the next generation of female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. Mary retired from Langley in 1985.
Jackson working at the NASA Langley Research Center. Image dated JUne 2  1977.
Jackson working at the NASA Langley Research Center. Image dated JUne 2, 1977.
In 2019, President Donald J. Trump signed the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act that posthumously awarded the honor to Jackson, who passed away in 2005, and her “Hidden Figures” colleagues Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Christine Darden.
Responding to the renaming of the NASA Headquarters building to honor her mother, her daughter, Carolyn Lewis, said the family was honored that NASA was continuing to celebrate Mary Jackson's legacy, reports the BBC.
"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," she said.
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