Mary Jackson: A Success of Astronomical Proportions

We are all familiar with the idea of picturing your future, dreaming of working your way up in your given industry. A successful career can be determined by many things, but as this series explores, perseverance and overcoming obstacles are certainly factors that can make a person’s success stand out and serve as inspiration to us all. Thus, we want to highlight someone who embodies that success, working her entire life towards the goal of being an influential and successful mathematician — Mary W. Jackson.

Mary Jackson space shuttle launch

Born in 1921, Mary Jackson, formerly Mary Winston, found a passion for mathematics very early on. From being in her 20s and helping out local science clubs to graduating with a dual degree in Math and Physical Sciences in 1942, Jackson knew the trajectory she wanted for herself. However, as a black woman in the era in which she lived, working in mathematics, let alone working at all, was not the common or high esteem goal that it is seen as today. Nonetheless, she pursued many related careers in her industry, beginning by teaching, then working with community organizations, bookkeeping, and then as an Army secretary. Almost ten years after getting her degree she finally acquired a role at NASA at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Jackson went on to work at NASA for 34 years.

During her time with NASA Jackson worked on some of the most impactful projects you could think of - most notably Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight missions of the U.S. However, that is not the most striking part of her story. As Jackson continued to succeed in her work, she needed to earn more and more accreditation that was not equally offered to people of color at the time. She also had to work for many years in a completely separate area to most NASA employees because of the race separation still occurring throughout the U.S. At every step of her career, Jackson had to work over-time, getting special permission that others did not need, and being one of few people that looked like her in higher-ranking positions. However, slowly but surely, she became NASA’s first black-female engineer and by the end of her career earned the most senior title available for engineers at NASA.

Both directly and indirectly, Jackson helped women and minorities follow their dream of entering into STEM industries. She pioneered the way for people of color at NASA, being an influential part in NASA deciding to end racial separation. Just this year, the NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. has named their institution after Mary W. Jackson. May she also remind us that even if our dreams are large and may seem distant, it is worth it to keep moving forward, as even at the age of 60 we can reach success.

#IndependentThinkers at GRI

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