In the past, NASA’s headquarters building in Washington, D.C., was simply known as “NASA Headquarters” or “Two Independence Square” (the name of that particular piece of real estate). This week, the agency officially named it the “Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters,” after NASA’s first Black female engineer.
Jackson worked as a math teacher and U.S. Army Secretary before NASA—called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at the time—recruited her as a research mathematician for its segregated West Area Computing Unit in 1951. After completing a training program in 1958 (which she needed special permission to attend, since it took place at a whites-only high school), she was promoted to engineer.
In the following decades, Jackson studied wind tunnels and air behavior around aircraft, and she was also instrumental in helping the U.S. pull forward in the Space Race of the 1960s. But Jackson’s legacy goes beyond her own engineering efforts: Between 1979 and 1985, she participated in the Federal Women’s Program at NASA’s Langley Research Center, where she advocated for the hiring and promotion of more female scientists.
“Mary W. Jackson was part of a group of very important women who helped NASA succeed in getting American astronauts into space,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a press release. “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.”
Jackson died in 2005, and her story was largely unknown until the release of Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book Hidden Figures and subsequent film of the same name, which chronicled the contributions of Jackson and her colleagues Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Christine Darden. In 2019, Congress passed a bipartisan bill to rename the part of E Street SW where NASA’s headquarters is located to Hidden Figures Way, and the women were also awarded Congressional Gold Medals.
“We are honored that NASA continues to celebrate the legacy of our mother and grandmother Mary W. Jackson,” Jackson’s daughter Carolyn Lewis said in the press release. “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.”