NASA‘s celebration of its pioneering diversity is showing no signs of stopping after the federal aerospace agency announced it would be renaming its headquarters for its first Black female engineer. Mary W. Jackson was part of the small group of Black women mathematicians whose groundbreaking contributions to NASA helped push space exploration forward.
The HBCU graduate who was portrayed by Janelle Monae in the box office smash “Hidden Figures” was being honored posthumously because of her devotion not only to her profession but also to her heritage, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a press release on Wednesday.
“Mary W. Jackson was part of a group of very important women who helped NASA succeed in getting American astronauts into space. 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,” Bridenstine said. “Today, we proudly announce the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building. It appropriately sits on ‘Hidden Figures Way,’ a reminder that Mary is one of many incredible and talented professionals in NASA’s history who contributed to this agency’s success. Hidden no more, we will continue to recognize the contributions of women, African Americans, and people of all backgrounds who have made NASA’s successful history of exploration possible.”
While the renaming of the headquarters is quite the honor, it is arguably not Jackson’s most prestigious recognition, either posthumous or in life. Not only did she win the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, but Jackson has also had a street named after her and a school in Utah did the same. Not to mention she was immortalized on the big screen in an award-winning Hollywood motion picture.
Jackson, who graduated from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in 1942 with a dual degree in math and physical sciences, held jobs as a math teacher and bookkeeper before her work as a secretary for the Army led to her career at the agency that eventually became NASA.
“Hidden Figures” introduced Jackson and her fellow mathematicians Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan to pop culture in 2017, when the film surged to the top spot at the box office. Aside from Monea portraying Jackson, the film starred Taraji P. Henson as Johnson and Octavia Spencer as Vaughn.
That same year, NASA named its new computer research center after Johnson. The following year, a school in Utah was renamed for Jackson. In 2019, NASA renamed the street in front of its headquarters to “Hidden Figures Way” as a tribute to the pioneering Black women. Months later, they, along with Dr. Christine Darden, would be awarded Congressional Gold Medals.
“Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Dr. Christine Darden made monumental contributions to science and our nation,” California Sen. Kamala D. Harris , one of the politicians who introduced the bill to honor the trailblazers, said in a statement at the time. “The groundbreaking accomplishments of these four women, and all of the women who contributed to the success of NASA, helped us win the space race but remained in the dark far too long. I am proud our bill to honor these remarkable women has passed Congress. These pioneers remain a beacon for Black women across the country, both young and old.”