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NASA Names Headquarters After Mary Jackson, Its First Black Female Engineer

Mary Jackson, NASA's first Black female engineer, in 1977 at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
Robert Nye
Mary Jackson, NASA's first Black female engineer, in 1977 at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

NASA's Washington, D.C., headquarters will soon bear the name of Mary Jackson, the agency's first African American female engineer and a driving force behind getting U.S. astronauts into space.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the move in a statement released Wednesday.

"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," he said.

While Jackson's career spanned more than three decades, her contributions were largely overlooked until long after her death in 2005. She was one of the three trailblazing "human computers" portrayed in the 2016 film Hidden Figures, which tells the story of Black women's work in the space race.

The portion of E Street SW in front of NASA Headquarters was renamed Hidden Figures Way in 2019. Bridenstine called the names 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 made NASA's successful history of exploration possible," he said.

Jackson was recruited in 1951 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the agency succeeded by NASA in 1958. She started out as a research mathematician, working in the segregated West Area Computing Unit of the agency's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Jackson eventually enrolled in a training program that would allow her to be promoted to engineer, obtaining special permission to attend classes since they were held at a then-segregated high school. She became NASA's first Black female engineer in 1958.

According to theagency, Jackson worked in aeronautics research as well as the personnel field, and went on to lead programs addressing the hiring and promotion of the next generation of female mathematicians, scientists and engineers before her retirement in 1985.

She was posthumously awardedthe Congressional Gold Medal in 2019.

Bridenstine acknowledged the naming decision comes at a time in which the country "is beginning to awaken to the greater need to honor the full diversity of people who helped pioneer our great nation."

"We are honored that NASA continues to celebrate the legacy of our mother and grandmother Mary W. Jackson," Carolyn Lewis, Mary's daughter, said in the agency's press release. "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."

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.