As we transition from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, it’s hard to think of a more inspiring group of technology pioneers than the Black women who worked as “human computers” at NASA. Only a few of their stories could be told within the confines of the film “Hidden Figures.” For this month’s Pioneers in Tech, we’re highlighting NASA trailblazer Annie Easley.
Born in 1933 in Birmingham, Alabama, Easley studied pharmacy for two years at Xavier University in New Orleans before leaving college and getting married. Despite her lack of degree, she started substitute teaching. In her spare time, she assisted members of the Black community in passing the literacy tests then required for voter registration, seeking to fight back against this form of discrimination by registering as many voters as possible. In a 2001 oral history interview for NASA, Easley explained her philosophy: “My head is not in the sand. But my thing is, if I can’t work with you, I will work around you. I was not about to be [so] discouraged that I’d walk away. That may be a solution for some people, but it’s not mine.”
In 1955, two weeks after seeing an article about twin sisters “human computers” working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NASA’s precursor, known as NACA), Easley—then living in Cleveland—took a job in the same role at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory. Little did she know she was starting a 34-year career in which she would seamlessly transition from performing complex mathematical calculations by hand to programming in FORTRAN and SOAP. Her work was integral to the successful 1963 launch of the Centaur high-energy booster rocket.
Easley returned to college in the 1970s and earned a degree in mathematics from Cleveland State. Along the way, she started fighting for equality in the workplace for women and people of color, making a pact with her supervisor to start wearing pantsuits. She became an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) counselor at NASA and member of the NASA speakers bureau, introducing children to STEM careers. Easley passed away in 2011.
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