The First Black Woman in NASA

Written by Oyinkasola Joalogun

4/26/20223 min read

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, widely known as NASA is “a U.S. government agency that is responsible for science and technology related to air and space.” (May 2015). It was founded in 1958 by Dwight D. Eisenhower from the already existing NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). During that time, segregation and racial bias were issues that were ongoing and common everywhere, and the workplace was no different. Black people, especially women, were often disregarded in their workplaces, and were not allowed to hold any important titles. They were forced to work minimum-wage jobs such as cleaning, serving, etc. This changed when NACA started recruiting African American women to work as “human computers” to calculate intricate math problems and luckily, amongst these women recruited was Mary Jackson; a thirty-year-old mathematician who had a degree in both mathematics and physical science. This made Mary the first-ever black woman to work at NASA.

What had Mary Jackson done in her life to accomplish this goal? Well, she had worked some other jobs such as being a math teacher, receptionist, army secretary, and bookkeeper. It was after these jobs that Mary began working at NACA (now a part of NASA) and she worked in a segregated unit called the West Area Computing Unit which was made up of black female mathematicians who participated in solving math problems relating to the physics of aeronautics. Nevertheless, she didn’t have to do her work alone. She got able to work alongside women such as Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, who together were known as the “Hidden Figures” like the ones from the movie. This name was given to them as they were behind some of the genius innovations that helped America’s development in the space race which occurred during the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union (currently Russia).

After working in the West Area Computing Unit for two years, Mary was invited by Mr Kazimierz Czarnecki, a polish NASA/NACA aeronautics engineer to work on a Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. He was so impressed by her work that he suggested Mary enroll in a program that would enable her to work as an engineer instead of a mathematician. At that time, the classes she needed to take for this were all segregated as they were for white students only, so she had to request special permission from the City of Hampton, Virginia. Thankfully, she was ultimately granted this permission. She then went ahead to complete all the courses she needed and graduated as an engineer making her the first-ever black engineer in NASA. She was also one of the few female engineers not just in NASA, but in the whole country and this really set her apart from others as she became a figure of female empowerment.

Mary Jackson worked as a NASA engineer for twenty years during which she experienced a lot of racial bias, especially when it came to promotions. This ultimately led her to take a demotion to a position as manager of the women’s program at NASA. Using this new position, Mary hired numerous female scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and lab technicians, decreasing the gender gap at NASA. She also promoted and hired a lot of POC women, especially those who were African American. She continued this for about six years until 1985 when she decided to retire at age 86.

Her efforts helped pave the way for other black innovators in the aeronautics and engineering industries and she is someone who is still honored and recognized to this day. Mary passed away on the 9th of April, 2005, but her legacy still lives on through her work and the achievements she won such as being the first black woman at NASA and the Apollo achievement award. The current NASA headquarters is named after her and is known as the Mary W. Jackson building.