A Figure Still Hidden
The Remarkable Tale of the Unstoppable Annie Easley
Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson. After the release of Hidden Figures in 2016, these women became household names across our nation. They received well-deserved recognition as our country finally acknowledged the women of color that advanced space travel.
But still, there are too many others that have yet to be given their rightful place in the spotlight. Working beside these engineers were hundreds of other brilliant mathematicians, scientists, and programmers. And it wasn’t just the women of West Area Computing that were making leaps and bounds towards the space age!
Just two years after Katherine Johnson began her incredible journey at Langley Research Center, NASA hired another brilliant mathematician to work in a similar role at the Glenn Research Facility. In her years of service, she programmed protocols and completed research that became foundational to the technology we have today. Meet the mathematician that programmed the foundations of our modern era, The Unstoppable Annie Easley.
Annie Easley was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1933. Before the civil rights era, Birmingham was a city rife with discrimination and segregation. Easley wasn’t allowed the same opportunities, facilities, or even the education that white children could access. The schools and facilities she could attend were underfunded and granted limited chances for advancement to their students. Nevertheless, she was stubbornly sedulous in her pursuit of knowledge.
Her mother, Mary Melvina Hoover, encouraged a strong work ethic from the start, and Easley dedicated herself to excel in her academics. Despite all the disadvantages unjustly placed on her by society, she knew that she could still find success through hard work. Her diligence and dedication paid off. By the end of high school, she was at the top of her class, outperforming her peers across her school subjects.
Easley graduated as the valedictorian of her class and was granted enrollment at a university in New Orleans where she studied pharmacy.
Prowess & Perseverance
After two years of attending Xavier University, Easley returned home to Birmingham. When she arrived, she was yet again struck by the harsh reality of Jim Crow America. Finally old enough to register to vote, Easley set out to claim her right. What followed was a new-found recognition of segregation’s iniquities.
With college attendance on her resume and a substitute teacher job in Jefferson Country, Easley wasn’t required to take the literacy test but still had to submit a lengthy application and even pay a poll tax to be able to vote. She was disheartened by the experience, knowing that others without her circumstance would be subject to a test known to be misleading and unreasonable.
Battling this injustice became her mission. Relying on what had become her innate sense of diligence, she got to work. She dedicated herself to helping others pass the test, then voted in elections with vehement passion alongside those she helped overcome the trials.
When Easley moved to Cleveland, Ohio, after meeting and marrying her husband, she had intended to continue her pharmacy education. Instead, she found that the only local university she could attend had recently closed. She never let that roadblock stop her and instead shifted her focus to finding a career. In passing, she came across an article about women working for NASA (called NACA at the time) as computers, workers that “computed” numbers for scientists. Immediately, Easley’s gears started turning.
She found a job posting for NASA and excitedly decided to apply. The job required excellent math skills - which Easley knew she could easily demonstrate. In 1955, Easley was hired as a computer, passing her interview with ease. When she arrived, she was one of only four black Americans working there.
At the start, her career involved calculating figures for NASA. By hand, she ran mathematical simulations for an experimental nuclear reactor called the Plum Brook Reactor. This very first project Easley was a part of became the main facility that NASA used to research nuclear energy for use in space for the next 40 years! Her accuracy was impeccable but, as technology evolved, human computers were replaced by mechanical ones. Giving up was not in Easley’s nature. When technology evolved, so did she.
When mechanical computers entered the NASA scene, Easley took up programming. She developed strong skills in both Fortran and Assembly language to work with the newfangled automatic calculators of the 60s . And thus, Easley became one of the first black programmers in NASA history. Her prowess was obvious to her peers. Instead of a single project, she was suddenly pulled to aid a wide variety of programs. She became an incremental aspect of NASA’s energy research, laid the foundation for hybrid-vehicle batteries, and even developed software for space travel!
Centaurs & Satellites
Perhaps Easley’s most significant work was what she did on the Centaur rocket stage. The Centaur, considered the greatest innovation ever created at NASA Glenn, used liquid hydrogen and oxygen instead of hydrocarbon fuels, making it so rockets could propel themselves forward much faster. This new technology was used for the next 50 years, launching both space shuttles and satellites.
Without Easley’s brilliant code, we may have never been able to explore Saturn, as Cassini used this technology to reach the gas giant. We also may have never had such a vast array of satellites in orbit! Her code was used as the foundation for launching military, weather, and even communication satellites. NASA even used some of the launches to research our ozone layer, which led to discovering the hole we had created.
Though she was highly respected by her peers, Easley still experienced many obstacles in her years at NASA. When she decided to go back to college for a degree in mathematics, she expected to receive funding from NASA, who gave scholarships to her white male coworkers but found that her scholarship was not approved. But, as with every other challenge she faced, she set to working harder. Out of pocket, while balancing work for NASA, Easley funded and completed a mathematics degree.
On top of contributing to astounding projects and working through a degree, she also helped pave the way for black Americans to have an equal opportunity at NASA. Easley helped establish NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity services and became the go-to person to address and fix discrimination problems within NASA Glenn. When reports were made about unjust treatment due to gender, race, or age, Easley met with supervisors and employees to solve the situation. She was known to have unending patience, solving issues cooperatively, even when they certainly warranted frustration.
In her free time, Easley focused on student outreach. Working with nearby tutoring programs and NASA, she would speak to young students, sharing her own experiences, talking about NASA’s projects, and encouraging young people’s involvement in scientific fields. She focused her efforts on inspiring both young women and young members of ethnic groups underrepresented at NASA. Her efforts greatly paid off. In sharing her story, she inspired a multitude of young STEM fanatics.
A Legacy Like No Other
After 34 years of astounding innovations, Easley retired from NASA. She spent the rest of her life volunteering, tutoring, enjoying tennis and skiing, and speaking in NASA’s and other organizations’ outreach programs. She passed away in 2011, living long enough to experience every transition between the Jim Crow Era and the election of the first black president.
Today, her story and contributions to technology live on. Her work led to GPS technology, improved energy systems, modern hybrid batteries, advancements in atmospheric research, and nearly 220 launches into space. Her influence on modern technology is colossal, yet her recognition is not proportional. Despite all obstacles, discrimination, and hardships, she struggled forward with unstoppable determination. And with each difficult step forward, she paved the way for those who followed in her footsteps.
Tips received from this article will be donated to Black Girls Code, an organization that empowers young women of color to become innovators in STEM fields.