NASA renames HQ after Mary W. Jackson

NASA has renamed its D.C. headquarters to honor renowned mathematician, aerospace engineer and “hidden figure” Mary Jackson

Maryam Khanum, Contributing Writer

In 1951, Mary Winston Jackson began her tenure with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as a research mathematician. Seven years later, when NACA was superseded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Jackson became its first African American female engineer. She died in 2005 at the age of 83.

Almost 70 years after the beginning of her career at NACA and just two weeks after the 16th anniversary of her death, Jackson was honored by the agency on Feb. 26, when they renamed their headquarters in Washington, D.C. in her honor. 

Jackson’s journey was brought to the forefront of discussions by Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 novel Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, and its subsequent film adaptation. The story details the endeavors of three African-American women (including Jackson) working in NACA’s heavily segregated Langley Research Center in 1951. Despite the racially charged obstacles they faced, each of these women played integral roles in NASA’s space exploration efforts at the peak of the Cold War in the mid-20th century. 

Jackson, in particular, faced numerous challenges while working as an African American engineer during the Jim Crow era in Virginia. Her efforts to enlist in NASA’s training program and be promoted to engineer were obstructed by racial segregation, as the mathematics and physics courses she had to take in order to qualify for the job were only held at the all-white Hampton High School. Determined to advance in her field, Jackson petitioned the City of Hampton to grant her permission to attend these classes. She was then able to complete her training and earn a promotion to aeronautic engineer.

Jackson went on to author and co-author 12 technical papers published by both NACA and NASA. She also worked extensively to provide opportunities for women to serve as mathematicians, engineers and scientists during her time as the manager of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program.

The plans to rename the Washington, D.C. headquarters were announced on June 24, 2020 by NASA’s then-administrator, Jim Bridenstine. This act was preceded by the 2019 renaming of a portion of East Street Southwest in front of NASA Headquarters to “Hidden Figures  Way,” following a bipartisan bill passed by Congress.

“Mary W. Jackson was part of a group of very important women who helped NASA succeed in sending astronauts into space. 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,” Bridenstine said, per NASA’s website. “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.”

This recognition follows a lengthy list of honors achieved by Jackson, both during her lifetime and posthumously. Most recently, in 2019, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the United States Congress’ highest expression of national appreciation. 

“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,” Jackson’s daughter, Carolyn Lewis, told NASA.