Mary Jackson: First Female Aerospace Engineer at NASA

You already got acquainted with Katherine Johnson, so now we want to introduce one of her colleagues to you with this article on Mary Jackson. 📝

Mary Jackson worked at NASA as the first female aerospace engineer. But the way to this position was a long and difficult one, as she had to overcome many different obstacles. Her legacy is such an important one because it not only shows that there are women and POC working in STEM, but it also shows that no matter what, you can reach your dreams if you work hard for it. 🚀🌌

Read more about the way she achieved her dreams in the full article below!

Mary Jackson | *09-04-1921 | † 11-02-2005 | USA | Mathematician, Aerospace Engineer

Mary Jackson-Winston was the first black female aerospace engineer at NASA in. How did she – especially at those times as an African-American woman – promote to this function? 

Jackson was born on April 9th 1921 in Virginia, USA. In school she excelled in her good notes, which allowed her to go to Hampton University. At the age of 21 she graduated with a dual degree in mathematics and physical science. For a little while she worked as a teacher, until 1951. 

In 1951 she started her new job at the National Advisory Committee for Astronautics (NACA), the organization who would later be known as NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). NACA had various different departments, including a department where only African-American women worked. Jackson, as a African-American woman herself, became a member of the West Area Computing department. The group of women mathematicians, working in this department, was also known as the West Computers. In short, these women calculated and analyzed loads of data for aerospace engineers. Nowadays, these calculations are done by computers. Back in the days, when Jackson became a member of the West Computers, the human ability to calculate the data was still better than the ability of computers.  

The West Computers department was born out of a collective need for NACA employees. Due to the second World War, there were barely men who could be recruited for NACA. NACA, and many other American companies, saw its solution in hiring people from minorities, as well as women. This led to the establishment of the West Computers; a group of African-American female employees. 

It is important to know that NACA was segregated. This means that NACA adhered privileges for (mainly) white people, and different rules and facilities for black people and minorities. For Jackson, this meant she had to use a different bathroom and had to sit at a different place during lunchtime, then the employees outside of the West Computers group. In short: Jackson and her coworkers had to work in an environment, highly comparable with the concept of apartheid in South-Africa. 

In 1953 Jackson left the West Computers, to start a new job at a different NACA department. She worked for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki, where she mainly focused on experiments and research in a high speed wind tunnel. Czarnecki suggested Jackson should sign up for a special course, so she could become an engineer herself. Not only NACA was segregated, the schools in Virginia were segregated as well. As a consequence, Jackson had to run through some lengthy procedures, before she could start the schooling to become an engineer. Including going to court to be allowed to participate in the all white course she needed to become an engineer.

Once she finished this course in 1958: Jackson became the first female aerospace engineer at NASA. For more than 20 years she worked as an aerospace engineer, with a focus on the airflow of aircrafts. In 1979, Jackson became the manager of the women’s program at NASA. She was devoted to improve the chances and conditions for NASA’s women employees. In 1985 she retired. 

After reading about Jackson’s career, you might think “someone should write a book, or make a film about this.” This has already been done. Margot Lee Shetterly wrote the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race in 2016. In the same year, a film was made based on this book: Hidden Figures. The ‘figures’ in these titles refer to Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine G. Johnson, who all started their journey as members of the West Computers.  


Author: Marlijn Metzlar
Image: Marlijn Metzlar

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