NASA will name its headquarters building Mary W. Jackson, the first female African American engineer at the space agency, who as one of the “Hidden Figures” overcame rampant racial discrimination and gender bias to help propel the agency at the dawn of the Space Age, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced Wednesday.
Jackson began her career in the 1950s in a segregated computing unit at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., that recently drew national attention as the setting for the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures,” based on a book by the same name.
Last year, the portion of E St. SW in front of NASA’s D.C. headquarters was renamed “Hidden Figures Way” in recognition of the African American women who worked at NASA in its early days.
The news came the same day some in the space industry began to push NASA to change the name of the Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi, named for John C. Stennis, the longtime senator from Mississippi, a segregationist who opposed racial equality and the integration of schools. And it comes as communities across the country are taking down Confederate monuments in the wake of the killing of George Floyd while he was in police custody.
The push coincided with a move to change the Navy’s aircraft carrier, also named for the late senator.
In response to the request to rename the space center, a NASA spokesman said that agency “leadership is sensitive to the discussions of racism, discrimination and inequalities going on around the world. We are aware of conversations about renaming facilities and are having ongoing discussions with the NASA workforce on this topic. NASA is dedicated to advancing diversity and we will continue to take steps to do so.”
The agency said it was honored to name its headquarters building after Jackson, who Bridenstine said was “part of a group of very important women who helped NASA 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.”
Carolyn Lewis, Jackson’s daughter, said her family was “honored” by the recognition. “She was a scientist, humanitarian, wife, mother and trailblazer who paved the way for thousands of others to succeed, not only at NASA but throughout this nation.”
An accomplished mathematician and aerospace engineer, Jackson joined NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, starting as a research mathematician and working under fellow “Hidden Figure” Dorothy Vaughn at Langley. In the film, Jackson was portrayed by actress Janelle Monáe.
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