NASA executive Jim Bridenstine announced this week that the organization would be naming its headquarters after Mary W. Jackson, one of the women whose historic contributions to NASA were explored in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. Jackson was portrayed by actress and musician Janelle Monae in the film.
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. 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.
In 1958 she became NASA’s first Black engineer, after first obtaining special permission to attend engineering classes at a segregated, all-white school. After working as an engineer at NASA for nearly two decades, she led the Federal Women’s Program and the NASA Office of Equal Opportunity before retiring in 1985. She died in 2005 and was posthumously awarded the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act in 2019. Her contributions to science were largely ignored for decades, along with the work done by Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan.
Space and space exploration were huge areas of interest for me growing up. The first encyclopedia entry I ever read was in the “S” volume. “S” — for “Sun.” When I had to write a story in fourth grade, I wrote it about NASA. I still have my battered, ancient copy of We Came in Peace: The Story of Man in Space. My first memory of a national event was seeing the Challenger explosion on live TV. The Right Stuff is one of my all-time favorite movies. I even liked the movie SpaceCamp. Don’t @ me. I like space.
You know who I never heard about, in all the deserved paeans to men with last names like Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins? I never heard about Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, or any other African-American. Nobody ever told me that African-Americans — much less African-American women — were a critical part of the Apollo moonshot. I daresay none of the people in my life who would have been happy to convey that information knew it themselves. I’m certain they would have told me. Giving me new information and turning me loose on the card catalog was one of the only ways to shut me up.
When the Mercury Seven visit the workshop where their capsule — excuse me, spacecraft — is being constructed in The Right Stuff, there’s not an African-American in sight. I’m not claiming anyone went out of their way to make that happen. It happened, most likely, because nobody thought it mattered in the first place. Either that, or the film’s producers were unaware there were African-Americans who contributed to the science of spaceflight, which is part of the problem.
I’m not literally arguing there should have been African-Americans in this specific scene. I’m using the scene because it’s one of a relative handful of times in the film when you see the astronauts engaging with a group of scientists. If you wanted to show that African-Americans played a role in the engineering and testing of the Mercury spacecraft, you’d have probably done it here.
It’s not uncommon to see people question the need for diverse representation in media or the value of changing a name. The value of these actions is that they create a more accurate picture of who contributed to the successes and achievements of America, and more broadly, the entire human race. It matters that the NASA Headquarters will be known as the Mary W. Jackson building. People look at buildings. Sometimes, they even Google their names to learn about the people they are named for.
When we honor the names and achievements of the formerly hidden, we push back at a historical myth — namely, that the Apollo Program and NASA’s pioneering work in aeronautics in the mid-1960s was entirely the work of white men. Women like Jackson, Johnson, Vaughan, and the other “hidden figures” deserve to be recognized in enduring ways. The phrase, after all, isn’t “We came in peace.” It’s “We came in peace for all mankind.”
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