Visionary STEM Leader
Mary Winston Jackson
April 9, 1921 – February 11, 2005
Mary Winston Jackson was the first African-American female engineer at NASA. Part of her inspiring life was documented in the book and movie, Hidden Figures.
Jackson was born and raised in Hampton, Virginia where she excelled in school and graduated with honors. Jackson then earned a dual degree in mathematics and physical science from the Hampton Institute and started her career as a math teacher.
In 1951, she started working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (a predecessor of NASA) in the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s segregated West Area Computing section where Jackson and the other women on the team were known as “human computers”. Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an Executive Order (8802) that prohibited discrimination in the defense industry, Virginia law supported segregation and Jackson was required to use separate bathrooms and dining facilities. In 1953, Jackson began working with Kazimierz Czarnecki, conducting high-speed wind-tunnel experiments. Kazimierz recognized Jackson’s potential and encouraged her to pursue becoming an engineer. To do that, Jackson had to obtain special permission to take classes with white students. Jackson was successful in the program and became the first African-American female engineer at NASA in 1958. Jackson worked as an aerospace engineer for more than 20 years, primarily focused on airflow around aircraft. She published numerous papers, some co-authored with Kazimierz.
Jackson shifted to work in the human resources domain, becoming the Federal Women’s Program Manager in the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and the Affirmative Action Program Manager. Until her retirement in 1985, she counseled women and minorities and advised them to study and take courses to increase their opportunity for promotion. Jackson’s efforts to give back to her community were demonstrated by her support of various organizations’ boards and committee, including the Girls Scouts of America.
- B.S., Mathematics and Physical Science, Hampton Institute, 1942
Special Affiliations, Awards, and Honors
- Apollo Group Achievement Award
- Langley’s Volunteer of the Year, 1976
- Congressional Gold Medal (posthumous), 2019
- Jackson Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Utah, was renamed the Mary W. Jackson Elementary School, 2018
- NASA Washington, D.C. headquarters renamed The Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters, 2020
“We have to do something like this to get them interested in science. Sometimes they are not aware of the number of black scientists, and don’t even know of the career opportunities until it is too late.”