Nasa’s DC headquarters renamed after ‘Hidden Figures’ engineer Mary Jackson

Jackson became Nasa’s first Black female engineer in 1958

Clémence Michallon
New York City
Friday 26 February 2021 16:06
Mary W Jackson at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in 1977
Mary W Jackson at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in 1977

Nasa is renaming its DC headquarters to honour Mary Jackson, the administration’s first Black female engineers who was one of the inspirations behind the film Hidden Figures.

The headquarters naming ceremony will take place this Friday (26 February) at 1pm ET. It will be live-streamed on YouTube, as well as on the agency’s Twitter and Facebook accounts and on its app.

After the ceremony, the building will be known as the Mary W Jackson Headquarters Building. It was previously known as Nasa Headquarters.

Born in 1921 in Hampton, Virginia, Jackson first worked as a math teacher in Calvert County, Maryland. After several professional changes, she joined the segregated West Area Computing section of Nasa’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1951.

Looking to be promoted from mathematician to engineer, Jackson needed to complete graduate math and physics courses at a high school that was then segregated. As a Black student, Jackson had to obtain special permission from the City of Hampton to attend the classes.

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Jackson completed the courses, and in 1958 became Nasa’s first Black female engineer.

Jackson, as noted by Nasa, “began her engineering career in an era in which female engineers of any background were a rarity; in the 1950s, she very well may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field. For nearly two decades she enjoyed a productive engineering career, authoring or co-authoring a dozen or so research reports, most focused on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes.”

The street sign ‘Hidden Figures Way’ is posted at Nasa’s headquarters in honour of Black female mathematicians who worked at the administration on 26 June 2020 in Washington, DC. The headquarters building is being renamed to honour Mary Jackson and will be known as the Mary W Jackson Headquarters Building.

In 1979, frustrated by what the agency described as “the glass ceiling” which “was the rule rather than the exception for the center’s female professionals”, Jackson took a demotion and started a position as a programme manager working to hire and promote female scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.

Jackson retired from Nasa in 1985 and died in 2005 aged 83. Her life was chronicled in the 2016 book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, along with those of two other Nasa mathematicians, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan.

The film adaptation of the book, Hidden Figures, was released that same year. Jackson is portrayed by Janelle Monáe, while Taraji P Henson plays Johnson and Octavia Spencer stars as Vaughan. The film was nominated for Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars, and Spencer earned a nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category.

Acting Nasa Administrator Steve Jurczyk is leading the naming ceremony on Friday. Jackson’s granddaughter Wanda Jackson is attending.

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