NASA’s Washington D.C. headquarters is now named after Mary Jackson, NASA’s first Black female engineer and an early advocate for equality on multiple fronts.
By Monica Haider
A woman who dismantled barriers and pursued her goals in a field dominated by men then and now, Jackson has demonstrated strength, skill and unrelenting passion for her field. She served as inspiration for Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win The Space Race, a 2016 book that was adapted into a film, and she was posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 2019. The naming of the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building took effect Friday—eight months after NASA first announced its decision during a time in which national tension surfaced over racial inequality.
Jackson’s name adorning the federal building shows acknowledgment for her numerous contributions, but it also represents some degree of change. Few government buildings are named after women or people of color, and this touches on both. Other Black women throughout history have also made transformative contributions to STEM, shattered social barriers, challenged the status quo and changed the paradigm of what it means to be a woman in the United States, but few of them have truly been honored for their work.
“Jackson personified NASA’s spirit of persevering against all odds, advancing human exploration, and providing inspiration to people all over the world,” NASA’s acting administrator Steve Jurczyk said. He added that he hopes walking through the newly-named headquarters will inspire people to continue to break barriers. “NASA is known globally for unparalleled accomplishments in aeronautics, space exploration, science, and technology that expand knowledge for the benefit of all humanity,” he said. “We understand this amazing work is possible only when we embrace unity, equity, diversity, and inclusion, and that operating in accordance with these values positions us as a model and inspiration for the world.”
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NASA tweeted a video highlighting some of Jackson’s accomplishments while noting that she “helped propel the dawn of the Space Age through her work as a human computer.” Jackson, who graduated from Hampton Institute in Virginia with degrees in mathematics and physical sciences, joined NASA first as a mathematician and then as an engineer in the 1950s—a period heavily segregated by race and gender. She soon worked on wind tunnels and analyzed forces on space and aircraft. In 1979 she joined the Federal Women’s Program at NASA’s Equal Opportunity Programs office where she fought for the hiring and promotion of women engineers, scientists and mathematicians. Jackson died in 2005.
“She was always our hero, she was always our star,” Jackson’s granddaughter Wanda Jackson said at Friday’s event unveiling the name.
Many other female pioneers in STEM have contributed to significant research in their fields and helped usher in monumental change. Katherine Johnson, who was also an inspiration for Hidden Figures, was an African-American mathematician at NASA who helped send astronauts to the moon through her work on spacecraft flight paths. She was born in 1918, during racial segregation and a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote. Yet she persevered and became the first woman in her division at NASA to receive credit as author of a research report. She played crucial roles in calculating the paths of the flights that put the first U.S. astronaut in space, sent the first U.S. astronaut to orbit Earth and sent Apollo 11’s team to the moon.
Dorothy Vaughan was the third character inspiration in Hidden Figures who served as NASA’s first African-American manager. She left her job as a high school math teacher to work at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Lab during the second world war. She first worked in an all-Black unit, in accordance with the prevailing Jim Crow laws, and later became an expert programmer.
Patricia S. Cowings spent 34 years at NASA and was the first American woman who was trained as a scientist astronaut. She studied space motion sickness and developed a treatment for it, the autogenic-feedback training exercise, which she patented.
Marie Maynard Daly graduated with a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1947, making her the first African-American woman to earn a doctoral degree in chemistry. Through her extensive research, she highlighted the impact of food and diet on heart health, and found and conveyed the connection between high cholesterol and clogged arteries.
Jane Wright, who graduated from New York Medical College in 1945, focused on cancer treatment and developed new methods of delivering chemotherapy. She became the first female African-American to become associate dean of a medical school. Wright later became the first female president of the New York Cancer Society.
The naming of the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters honors the woman behind the name and other women in STEM who have sacrificed and helped elevate the United States in some way even when faced with racial discrimination or gender inequality.