Mary Winston Jackson

Mary Winston Jackson was a mathematician and aerospace engineer, and the first African American Female engineer to work at NASA. Born in Hampton, Virginia, she always had a gift for arithmetic. She obtained a dual degree BS (1942) in Mathematics and Physical Science at Hampton Institute, now Hampton University. She did a brief stint in Maryland public schools as a math teacher and then in 1943 at the United Service Organization (USO) as a secretary and bookkeeper. She then started working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1951 as part of the West Computing Unit that employed all of the African American female mathematicians. The women contributed data that was important to the success of the space program. Unfortunately, NACA was segregated at that time, and the Black employees still had to use separate dining facilities and bathrooms.

She then went to work for an engineer doing studies on a high-speed wind tunnel. He recommended that she undergo training to become an engineer, and that is exactly what she did. She needed special permission to take classes with white students, as Virginia was still segregated, and in 1958 she completed the requirements and became the first Black female engineer (Aeronautical Engineer) at NASA. NACA was also incorporated into NASA, and she worked in the NASA Langley Research Center.

For the next decade her research would focus on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. She also worked on calculations for space flight including project Mercury and Apollo. She eventually became a program manager, as she was denied management positions, and worked to oversee an increase in hiring of women and minority engineers. Years of service granted her numerous awards and honors including Langley’s Volunteer of the Year (1976) and the Apollo group Achievement award. She also served as a Girl Scouts of America leader, participated in the National Technical Association, and was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. After years of working in her community she passed away in 2005 at the age of 83.