Kazimierz Czarnecki and Mary Jackson—Worked Together on the Space Program at NASA

By Ted Rajchel

Background

Kazimierz Czarnecki (engineer) was born in Poland in 1916.  He was a Polish aeronautics engineer, who worked for NACA, later NASA. He immigrated to the United States in an unknown year.  He graduated in 1939 from the University of Alabama and started working with NACA that same year, remaining through the renaming to NASA until his retirement in 1979 from a position as senior aeronautical research engineer.  In the 2016 film, Hidden figures, he was a wind tunnel expert.  He published many papers together with Mary W. Jackson, serving as her long-time mentor.  In 1979, Jackson organized his retirement party.

Mary Jackson (April 9, 1921-February 11, 2005) was an aerospace engineer and mathematician for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (later the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). She became NASA’s first black female aeronautics engineer and worked to improve hiring practices for women at the administration.  Mary Jackson was the daughter of Ella and Frank Winston, from Hampton, Virginia.  As a teenager, she attended the all-black George P. Phenix Training School and graduated with honors. She was then accepted to Hampton University, a private, historically black university in her hometown.  Jackson earned dual Bachelor’s Degrees in Mathematics and Physical Science and graduated in 1942.  After this, Mary Jackson found only temporary employment and jobs that did not line up with her expertise.  She worked as a teacher, a bookkeeper, and even a receptionist at one point.  She also privately tutored high school and college students.  In the 1940s Mary married Levi Jackson.  The couple had two children: Levi Jackson, Jr. and Carolyn Marie Jackson (later Lewis).  Mary Jackson’s life continued in this pattern for nine years until 1951.  That year she became a clerk at the Office of the Chief Army Field Forces at Fort Monroe, but soon moved to another government job. She was recruited by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and worked under Dorothy Vaughan in West Computers, a segregated division of black female mathematicians.

Working with engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki

She started working in the supersonic pressure tunnel, which was a crucial apparatus for research on aeronautical projects, and later the space program.  It functioned by generating winds so fast that they were nearly twice the speed of sound, which was used to study the effects of forces on models.  Czarnecki was impressed by Jackson’s work.  He was influenced by her and encouraged her to get the qualifications necessary to be promoted to a full aeronautical engineer position.  However, she faced several obstacles to that goal.  There had never been a black female engineer at NACA, and the classes Jackson needed to take in order to qualify weren’t easy to attend.  The problem was that the graduate-level math and physical classes need to take were offered at night classes through the University of Virginia, but those night classes were held at the nearby Hampton High school, an all-white school.  Jackson had to petition the courts for permission to attend those classes.  She was successful, was promoted to Aerospace Engineer, making history as the organization’s first black female engineer.

Mary Jackson Became a Groundbreaking Engineer

As an engineer, Jackson remained at the Langley facility, located in Virginia, but moved over to work at the Theoretical Aerodynamics Branch of the Subsonic-Transonic Aerodynamics Division.  Her work focused on analyzing data produced from those wind tunnel experiments as well as actual flight experiments.  By gaining a better understanding of air flow, her work helped improve aircraft design.  Czarnecki was featured as a wind tunnel expert.  He published many papers together with Mary Jackson, serving as her long-time mentor.  She also used her wind tunnel knowledge to help her community:  In the  1970s she worked with young African- American children to create a mini version of a wind tunnel.  She received specialized training at NASA headquarters before returning to the Langley facility.  Her work focused on helping women, black employees, and other minorities advance in their careers, advising them on how to get promotions and working to highlight those who were particularly high-achieving in their particular fields. During this time in her career, she held multiple titles, including federal women’s program manager in the office of equal opportunity programs and affirmative action program manager.

Mary Jackson Helped Astronauts Succeed in Getting Into Space

“Mary Jackson was part of a group of very important women who helped NASA succeed in getting American astronauts into space,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, in the statement.  “Mary never accepted the status quo; she helped break barriers and opened opportunities for African-Americans and women in the field of engineering and technology.” “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,” he added.  Current and former astronauts paid tribute to Jackson’s achievements and her incredible legacy.  “So excited to hear about Mary Jackson breaking through barriers and becoming a hero to so many, including me. NASA was lucky to have her join the team and then will continue to draw from her strength and skills as her legacy inspires and educated into the future,”  tweeted Christina Knock, who returned earlier this year from a record breaking 328-day stint on the international space station.  Despite all the obstacles that were thrown along Mary Jackson’s path, she strived to become an engineer in NASA.  She was one of the engineers that helped America win the space race. She also has significantly contributed to NASA’s Project Mercury.   

“Hidden Figures Way”

In 2019, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Nelson and John Thune was passed, renaming the portion of E-Street SW in front of NASA Headquarters “Hidden Figures Way”.  As NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said upon making the announcement of naming the building “ …Hidden no more, 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.  What better way to heal the wounds caused by the past than to honor those who were overlooked or underappreciated?”  Jackson’s story features in the 2016 non-fiction book “Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation into Space.”   She is one of the three protagonists in Hidden Figures,

the film adaptation released the same year.

Legacy

The 2016 film hidden Figures recounts the NASA careers of Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, specifically their work on Project Mercury during the space race.  The film is based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly.  In 2018 the Salt Lake City School Board voted that Jackson Elementary School would from then on be officially named after Mary Jackson rather than, as it used to be, after President Andrew Jackson.  Mary Jackson was striving to be an engineer—“I plan on being an engineer at NASA.  I have no choice, but to be the first.”   These are the famous lines that were confidently uttered in the court scene in the Hidden Figures movie.  The traditional stereotype of engineers during the segregation era of the 1950s, was that they were a white, male force.  For Mary Jackson, this was certainly a hindrance to becoming an engineer with the gender and race with which she had inherited.

Mary Jackson Retired from NASA

In 1985 she retired at the age of 64.  She lived for another 20 years, working in her community and continuing her advocacy and community engagement. Mary Jackson died on February 11, 2005 at the age of 83.  In 2006 she was one of three main women profiled in Margot Lee Shettlerly’s book Hidden Figures; The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Back Women who Helped With the Space Race, and its subsequent movie adaption, in which she was portrayed by Janelle Monae.

Awards and Honors

Mary Jackson received many awards. They are as follows:  The  Apollo Group Achievement Award 1969, Daniels Alumni Award for Outstanding Service to Disadvantaged Youth, National Council of Negro Women, Inc.,  Certificate of Recognition for Outstanding Service to the Community, Distinguished Service Award for Her work with Combined Federal Campaign Representing Humanitarian Agencies, 1972,  Langley Research Center Outstanding Volunteer Award, 1975,  Langley Research Center Volunteer of the Year, 1976,  Lota Lambda Sorority Award for the Peninsula Outstanding Woman Scientist, 1976, King Street Community Center Outstanding Award,  National Technical Association’s Tribute Award, 1976,  Hampton Roads Chapter “Book of Golden Deeds”  for Service,  Langley Research Center Certificate of Appreciation, 1976-1977.

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