Mary Winston Jackson began her engineering career in an era in which female engineers of any background were a rarity; in the 1950s, she very well may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field. Jackson was recently portrayed by singer-songwriter and actress, Janelle Monae, in the movie Hidden Figures. The 2016 film Hidden Figures recounts the NASA careers of Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan, specifically their work on Project Mercury during the Space Race.
Jackson grew up in Hampton, Virginia. After graduating with the highest honors from high school, she enrolled at Hampton Institute. She earned her Bachelor of Science Degrees in Mathematics and Physical Science. After completing her education, she taught in math at a black school Maryland before joining NASA.
She worked two years in the computing pool and later received an offer to work for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the 4-foot by 4-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel capable of blasting models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound.
Jackson was offered hands-on experience conducting experiments in the facility by Czarnecki, and he eventually suggested that she enter a training program that would allow her to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer. Trainees had to take graduate level math and physics in after-work courses managed by the University of Virginia. The classes were held at then-segregated Hampton High School, and Jackson needed special permission from the City of Hampton to join her white peers in the classroom. After getting permission, Mary completed the courses, earned the promotion, and in 1958 became NASA’s first black female engineer.
Jackson retired from Langley in 1985. Among her many honors were an Apollo Group Achievement Award, and being named Langley’s Volunteer of the Year in 1976. She served as the chair of one of the center’s annual United Way campaigns, was a Girl Scout troop leader for more than three decades, and a member of the National Technical Association (the oldest African American technical organization in the United States). Mary Jackson died on February 11, 2005, at age 83.