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NASA headquarters building named for Hidden Figure Mary W. Jackson.

Posted June 24, 2020 6:06 p.m. EDT
Updated June 25, 2020 8:49 a.m. EDT

Mary Jackson grew up in Hampton, Virginia. After graduating with highest honors from high school, she then continued her education at Hampton Institute, earning her Bachelor of Science Degrees in Mathematics and Physical Science. Following graduation, Mary taught in Maryland prior to joining NASA. Mary retired from the NASA Langley Research Center in 1985 as an Aeronautical Engineer after 34 years. (Image: NASA)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced Wednesday the agency’s headquarters building in Washington, D.C., will be named for Mary W. Jackson, the first African American female engineer at NASA.

“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,” said Bridenstine. “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.”

Jackson was born and raised in Hampton, Virginia. After graduating high school with honors, she earned dual bachelor's degree in math and physical sciences from Hampton Institute in 1942. She taught math at a segregated school in Calvert County, Maryland. She then returned to Hampton where she worked as a receptionist of the USO Club, a bookkeeper for the Hampton Institute's Health Department and as well as an Army secretary at Fort Monroe.

In April 1951, she joined NASA, then the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, performing complex calculations and reducing engineering data for the war effort at the Langley Research Center. Though President Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802 prohibited discrimination in the defense industry ten years earlier, Virginia law still enforced segregation at the West Area Computing section.

After only two years as a "human computer", she was given the opportunity for hands-on work at Langley's supersonic wind tunnel by aeronautical engineer Kazimierz "Kaz" Czarnecki.

At Kaz's encouragement, she completed graduate level math and physics courses offered by the University of Virginia and was promoted to engineer in 1958. This required her to petition the city of Hampton for special permission to attend the night school at a local segregated high school.

Jackson and Czarnecki would co-author ten papers on airflow and turbulence at supersonic speeds as well as the complex transition from subsonic to supersonic flight.

She was named 1976 Volunteer of the Year at Langley, in part for her efforts guiding the young people of Hampton’s King Street Community Center Science Club to build a wind tunnel and conduct experiments. In 1979, she joined the Federal Women’s Program, focusing on the hiring and advancement of the next generation of female mathematicians, engineers and scientists.

Mary organized her mentor's retirement party in 1979 and would herself retire from NASA in 1985. Mary W. Jackson died in 2005 at the age of 83

Jackson's story along with colleagues Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Christine Darden are told in the 2016 non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. Actress Janelle Monáe portrayed Jackson in the film adaptation released the same year.

In 2017, the state-of-the-art computer research facility at Langley was named for Katherine Johnson. The then 99-year-old Johnson attended the dedication ceremony.

In 2019, President Trump signed the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act that posthumously awarded the honor to Jackson and her “Hidden Figures” colleagues.

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