NASA names HQ for former 'hidden figure' Mary W. Jackson
February 27, 2021
— There is no way that Mary W. Jackson, NASA's first African American female engineer, could have known that the building she once trained in would someday bear her name.
In fact, she might have just assumed that no one would remember her name, let alone use it to honor her and the many other "hidden figures" whose work made NASA's early achievements in aeronautics and space exploration possible. But on Friday (Feb. 26), Mary W. Jackson became a central figure in NASA's identity.
"She never gloated or bragged about anything she did, any of her accomplishments or anything like that. It was just who she was, everyday life, just something to do. 'It was just my job, it wasn't anything special,'" said Wanda Jackson, recalling the words of her late grandmother at a ceremony to officially name NASA's headquarters building in Washington for Mary Winston Jackson.
"She was special to us," Wanda Jackson said. "So I would like to thank NASA ... for showing the world what the Winston and Jackson family always knew about her: she was always our special person. She was always our hero."
The ceremony, which included the unveiling of a building sign with Jackson's name on it, was led by acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk and included remarks offered in-person and by video by members of Jackson's family, her colleagues at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia, elected officials and celebrities.
"With the official naming of the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters today, we ensure that she is a 'hidden figure' no longer," said Jurczyk. "Jackson's story is one of incredible determination. She personified NASA's spirit of persevering against all odds, providing inspiration and advancing science and exploration."
"There is no denying she faced innumerable challenges in her work, work that would eventually help send the first Americans to space," he said.
Recruited in 1951 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the preceding agency to NASA, Jackson worked as a "human computer" in the segregated West Area Computing Unit at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (today, Langley Research Center). After two years supporting the center's aeronautics work as a research mathematician, Jackson transferred to the 4-foot by 4-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel capable of subjecting aeronautical and astronautical test models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound.
Based on the experience she gained conducting experiments in the wind tunnel, Jackson's supervisor recommended she enter a training program to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer. Because the classes were held at a then-segregated high school, Jackson needed special permission to join her white peers in the classroom.
Jackson earned the promotion and became NASA's first Black woman to serve the agency as an engineer. For nearly two decades, Jackson authored or co-wrote numerous research reports mostly focused on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. In 1979, she joined Langley's Federal Women's Program, where she became a respected advocate for the hiring and promotion of the next generation of female mathematicians, engineers and scientists before retiring from Langley in 1985.
Jackson died on Feb. 11, 2005, at the age of 83.
"In terms of the contributions she made to the space program, President John F. Kennedy said something like a nation reveals itself, not only by those it produces, but also by those it honors and those it remembers. Naming this building after Mary Jackson reveals a lot about our country," said Clayton Turner, director of the Langley Research Center.
The work that Jackson and the others began in the West Area Computing Unit caught widespread national attention after Margot Lee Shetterly published her 2016 book, "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race." The book was made into a feature film that same year, with actress Janelle Monáe portraying Jackson.
"I think it is extraordinary that NASA has named our headquarters building in honor of Mary W. Jackson," said NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson, who was the second Black woman to fly into space. "I hope that it inspires young girls, and in particular young girls of color, to consider a [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] STEM field as a career. It shows our youth what achievements are possible through hard work, education, dedication and commitment."
Previously known simply as "NASA Headquarters," or Two Independence Square, the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building has served as the space agency's Washington, D.C. base of operations since 1992. In 2019, the portion of E Street SW in front of the building was named "Hidden Figures Way," in part as another honor for Jackson.
"It is most fitting that on the close of Black History Month and on the cusp of Women's History Month, we are celebrating renaming of this building to the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters," said Lucinda Babers, deputy mayor for operations and infrastructure for Washington, D.C. "As I walked toward the building along Hidden Figures Way this afternoon, I reflected on how, thanks to the paths laid by Mary Jackson and countless others, the world is a much different place than it was 70 years ago when Ms. Jackson was first hired."
The Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters sign is seen after being unveiled by Bryan Jackson, grandson, and Raymond Lewis, son-in-law of NASA's first Black female engineer, during a ceremony naming the building, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. (NASA/Joel Kowsky)
Mary W. Jackson overcame the barriers of segregation and gender bias to become the first African American female engineer to work at NASA. She later led the efforts to ensure equal opportunities for future generations. (NASA)
The Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building is located along Hidden Figures Way in Washington, D.C. (NASA)
Mary W. Jackson at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where she began work in 1951 and became the agency's first African American female engineer in 1958. (NASA)
Bryan Jackson, grandson, left, and Raymond Lewis, son-in-law, right, unveil the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters sign during a ceremony to officially name the building, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. (NASA/Joel Kowsky)