NASA recently announced that it would be renaming its headquarters in Washington, D.C. after Mary W. Jackson, the trailblazing first Black female engineer at the space agency made famous by the film Hidden Figures.
Current NASA staff say that she remains an inspiration in both the day-to-day operations and the broader overarching goals of the agency. Digital Trends spoke to three senior figures at NASA about Jackson’s legacy and how her influence is shaping the agency into something better for all humanity.
A pathfinder in engineering
Jackson, who died in 2005, was an influential figure at NASA, working on some of the agency’s biggest challenges, including the Apollo moon landing. Along with other towering figures such as Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, both of whom also worked at NASA Langley in Virginia, she was one of many Black women working at NASA in the 1950s who formed an integral part of the agency’s work.
Clayton Turner, the first Black center director at NASA Langley, described Jackson’s legacy as formative in the principles and operation of Langley now.
“She was a pathfinder,” Turner told Digital Trends in an interview. “In addition to being a talented engineer and doing groundbreaking work and writing a lot of papers, she was a pioneer very early in her career.”
Jackson achieved great renown as an engineer, but later in her career, when she could have rested on her laurels, she instead chose to switch away from engineering and work to promote opportunities for women and people of color in science and technical fields, Turner said.
“She chose to alter her career path so she could enable others to take on engineering and technical fields,” Turner said. “She took on a Langley program that enabled women and other minorities to take on more challenging roles with the Langley research center. She set a path and sacrificed her own career to enable the careers of others.”
Jackson is famed for her tenacity and determination during a career where she had to fight to be the first in many ways.
“She persevered through a lot of challenges we can only imagine,” Turner said. “But she made it possible for me to be sitting in this chair right now.”
A lasting impact
Michelle Ferebee is the deputy director of the Office of Strategic Analysis, Communications, and Business Development at NASA Langley, and she and a classmate were among only the second group of Black women to graduate from the mathematics department of the College of William and Mary in 1983.
“Somebody forgot to tell me that girls aren’t good at math,” she joked.
Both Jackson and Johnson were working at NASA when Ferebee began at the agency, and their work and the work of other Black women at NASA directly impacted Ferebee’s career.
“It definitely shaped the way I interacted with other employees at NASA,” she told Digital Trends. “They reached out to me, and they suggested I join the National Technical Association, the oldest Black technical association. We had a very active chapter at NASA.”
They advised Ferebee on career advancement, including highlighting the importance of publishing in academic fields, and encouraged her to publish her first journal article.
“They would check in on me,” Ferebee said. “They were mentoring me, and I didn’t even realize it at the time. They made sure I knew other folks across Langley.”
“When I look back, I had people in my life that I knew cared about me… I didn’t know the rules of engagement of how to move my career forward — my mother was a teacher and my dad was a mailman… I didn’t have any knowledge going into working at NASA of how to progress, so having that support group helped me understand how to navigate that, and to have someone to talk to.”
Ferebee credits Jackson’s trailblazing work with giving her the opportunity to prove herself.
“I would not be in the position I’m in now had it not been for Mary in particular, as the first Black engineer at NASA,” Ferebee said, “and the fact that she decided to go and work in a different field, to allow women and women of color to have other options and to be recognized as researchers.
“Mary and Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan and Christine Darden, they paved the way for us to be able to recognized as mathematicians, computer scientists, and engineers.”
Recruiting top talent
NASA said it is proud of its commitment to diversity, equality, and inclusion, and the agency has been named the best place to work in federal government for eight years in a row, in addition to being ranked No. 1 on the sub-index for diversity and inclusiveness.
Steve Shih, NASA’s associate administrator for Diversity and Equal Opportunity, told Digital Trends that the decision to rename NASA headquarters after Mary Jackson was a direct result of this commitment to diversity.
Shih also pointed to other ways NASA has promoted this commitment: The renaming of the street outside NASA headquarters to “Hidden Figures Way,” the recent first all-female spacewalk conducted from the International Space Station, and the Artemis mission’s aim to get the first woman to the moon.
NASA also seeks to bring in diverse talent through proactive recruitment.
“NASA regularly engages with historically Black colleges and universities, and other minority-serving institutions at job fairs and other outreach venues,” Shih said. “We go there to engage these organizations, to market our work, and to recruit top talent.”
Other outreach efforts include NASA’s rotational program, in which staff from minority-serving institutions can work at NASA on a two-year rotation, funding provided to minority institutions performing research, and the awarding of grants.
The diversity office handles complaints about discrimination or harassment, aiming to resolve them promptly in a couple of months, as well as assess whether the agency is not only employing minority scientists and workers, but also giving them the opportunities to be promoted and to rise to leadership positions, Shih said.
There’s also the importance of providing options like part-time work and leaves of absence for those who want to become parents. This allows the flexibility to have both and family and a career. Ferebee specifically mentioned these options as ones that helped her grow in her career.
“We have a culture of not only diversity, but also a culture of inclusion,” Shih said. “We want people to be able to contribute fully.”
Challenges faced by Black women in technical fields
One issue that can exacerbate gender and racial inequalities in the workplace is the tendency among many women — and particularly women of color — to downplay their achievements and to only apply for jobs which they are 100% qualified for, unlike men who will put themselves forward for jobs more readily.
“Minority women, especially Black and Hispanic women, we work really hard, but we don’t talk about what we do,” Ferebee said. “If we’re doing a good job, we keep it to ourselves and we just work. We don’t toot our own horns. So it’s not about bragging, but it is important to speak up for ourselves, to recognize what we’re doing and the impact we’re making on moving the mission forward.”
Ferebee described sitting in meetings and being the only Black person and the only woman in the room on the technical side, and having people assume she was a secretary.
She also recalls making suggestions at a meeting and being ignored, only to have a white man make the same suggestion and for people to pay attention. These incidents provided additional pressure to prove herself.
“I do feel that, in terms of my work, I really have to make sure I’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s,” she said.
Even though she feels the situation has improved thanks to pioneers like Jackson and her colleagues, there is still work to be done to allow the best Black female talent to rise in the agency.
“At NASA Langley, even now, we don’t have a lot of Black senior leaders,” Ferebee said. “I think I’m one of only maybe six Black females at GS-15 [a high-level executive position] at NASA Langley, out of roughly 1,700 employees. And it’s not because of a lack of people able to rise and do the work required at that level. Sometimes it comes down to understanding how to present yourself and work on the more high-visibility problems. Sometimes it’s not just about working hard and doing a good job.”
One reason for agencies to embrace diversity is to recruit the best possible people for highly challenging jobs. “We know that in order to be able to succeed, we have to have access to the best talent,” Shih said. “And that means talent with the best possible knowledge, skills, competencies, thinking, creativity, and innovation. And this also means we need cognitive diversity, where we can examine issues and problems from multiple angles.”
But diversity is important beyond just getting access to the best people and the broadest knowledge. Diverse opinions can help spot potential errors or cast problems in a new light.
Shih linked some of NASA’s biggest setbacks, such as the fatal fire during the Apollo 1 mission and the loss of the space shuttles Columbia and Challenger, to a lack of diverse viewpoints involved in the projects.
“We know from our history that when we did have setbacks, it was easy to find the technical and engineering problems. But when we go back and look at those incidents, what we see is what’s underlying the technical issues are oftentimes the lack of inclusion of different people with different viewpoints and concerns and opinions and ideas — sometimes unconventional and unpopular ideas,” he said. “When we don’t include all of the available talent and their ideas, no only do we not have the benefit of all of their skills, we also don’t have the benefit of different perspectives and data. These perspectives and data can help us identify blind spots and avoid complacency.”
A broader problem of equality
Despite improvements in career opportunities enabled by women like Jackson, the broader problems she faced in terms of societal prejudice continue to be a challenge for Black engineers and scientists today.
“When George Floyd was murdered, and there was a lot of unrest in our society, I shared a letter with our entire workforce,” Turner said. “And in that, I tried to share the impact that’s been on me being a Black man in this society. I shared my experiences of walking while Black, of driving while Black, of walking in an elevator and watching someone get nervous and anxious.”
Turner said he has two adult sons and worries what might happen if they are stopped by a police officer.
“Those are the kinds of things that as a Black male or Black female we think about,” Turner said. “I worry that the inspiration that I’ve shared with my sons — that you should be able to ask questions and understand why something is happening — what if my son, or one of my colleagues, or my niece or my nephew, has the courage to ask that question… and something went horribly wrong?
“I get concerned that they will be more courageous than me, that they will want to get to a solution more so than I do, and they might go through an experience where they won’t be here. Because I’m here, but they wouldn’t be,” he continued. “So I want to sort that out so we can all have that courage, so we’re all supporting each other.”
Who are we lifting up?
The legacy of Jackson, Johnson, Vaughan, and others like them continue to provide inspiration and an inclusive vision to those working at NASA today.
Turner described meeting Katherine Johnson, who died earlier this year at 101, when she was 97 years old, and her telling him about how she was learning Spanish from a student she was tutoring in math.
“What I took from that is that while we’re inspiring and providing tutoring, we can also be learning,” he said. “It’s a two-way street. We’re going to make each other’s lives better, that’s what I learned from her.”
Johnson always sought to elevate the successes of those around her.
“She wanted to talk about all the contributions that others made to help her do her job,” Turner said. “And that’s the model we should take: Who are we lifting up? Who are we celebrating?”
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