The Ceiling Breaker: An Engineer with a Passion for Science and the Next Generation
A mathematician and aerospace engineer, Jackson was NASA’s first African American female engineer and is known for her contributions to NASA’s early manned missions and years of research on aerodynamics.
Jackson began her NASA career as a member of the West Area Computing Unit, a segregated all-female group tasked with processing wind tunnel and flight data. After two years, Jackson began helping engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki with experiments in Langley Research Center’s Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. Impressed by Jackson’s abilities, Czarnecki encouraged Jackson to participate in a NASA training program that would qualify her for an engineering position with the agency. In order to do so, Jackson had to receive special permission from local officials to attend the required University of Virginia graduate-level math and physics classes, which were held at night at a then-segregated local school in Hampton, Virginia. After completing the program, Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer in 1958.
Building a Trusted Future
Jackson enjoyed a successful and productive engineering career, authoring or co-authoring many research reports relating to the boundary layer of air around airplanes and other aeronautical issues. Despite her success and accomplishments over two decades at NASA, Jackson became frustrated with the glass ceiling limiting her career advancement.
After she had earned the most senior engineering title available, it became clear that there was no further scope for promotion. In 1979, Jackson took the dramatic step of stepping away entirely from engineering to become Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager, a move which required her to take a demotion. In that role, which she held until she retired in 1985, Jackson worked to improve hiring and promotion policies for the next generation of female engineers, mathematicians, and scientists at NASA.
In 2019, after gaining wider recognition following the release of Hidden Figures, Jackson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, and in 2021, NASA renamed its Washington, D.C. headquarters in her honor.