Mathematician Mary Jackson was one of a small group of African-American women who worked as aeronautical engineers, called "human computers," at NASA during the Space Age.
Born in Virginia in 1921, Mary Winston Jackson excelled academically in a time of racial segregation. Her math and science skills earned her a position as a "human computer" for NACA, and she later became NASA's first black female engineer. Along with serving a vital role in the development of the space program, she helped other women and minorities advance their careers. Jackson died in February 2005 at the age of 83. The story of her groundbreaking contributions to NASA was later dramatized in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.
After college, Mary Jackson took on a series of jobs, including teacher, bookkeeper and receptionist. Then in 1951, she found employment at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor agency to NASA) in Langley, Virginia. She worked at the West Computers section as a research mathematician—known at the time as a "human computer." In 1953, she moved to the Compressibility Research Division of NACA.
Though President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 prohibited discrimination in the defense industry, Virginia state law still enforced segregation in the workplace. All work facilities had separate restrooms and cafeterias designated “white” or “colored.” In the company cafeteria, whites could select their food choices and sit in a lunch room. Blacks had to make their food requests to a cafeteria attendant and then go back to their desks and eat, an experience Jackson considered an indignity.
During her career, Mary Jackson served on many organizations’ boards and committees, including the Girl Scouts of America, and was honored by numerous charitable organizations for her leadership and service. She died at age 83 on February 11, 2005, at Riverside Convalescent Home in Hampton, Virginia.
In 2016, the story of Jackson and her NASA colleagues Katherine G. Johnson and Dorothy Johnson Vaughan, who calculated flight trajectories for project Mercury and the Apollo program in the 1960s, made it to the big screen in Hidden Figures. In 2018, it was announced that Jackson Elementary in Salt Lake City, Utah, named for President Andrew Jackson, would be renamed Mary W. Jackson Elementary School in honor of the groundbreaking NASA engineer.