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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

Do you know of a great woman in engineering that should be recognized? Let us know! Submit a few paragraphs about that person and we'll add her to the blog. Please provide a citation for the material that you submit so that we can verify it. Please note - it has to be original material. We cannot publish copywritten material or bulk text taken from books or other sites (including Wikipedia).

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Woman of the Week – Annie Easley

Posted June 26, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

It takes a brilliant mind to be a computer programmer, mathematician, or rocket scientist. Annie Easley was all three. Brilliant, indeed.

During her 34-year career at NASA, she worked not only on technologies that led to hybrid vehicles, but also on software that enabled great strides in spaceflight and exploration. She also did all of this as one of the first few African-Americans in her field.

Easley was born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised by her mother, who encouraged her to follow any dream she had. Her mother encouraged her to get a good education and Easley was valedictorian of her graduating class.

After high school she went to Xavier University, then an African-American Roman Catholic university, where she majored in pharmacy for about two years.

In 1954, she returned to Birmingham briefly. As part of the Jim Crow laws, African Americans were required to pass an onerous literacy test and pay a poll tax in order to vote. She remembers the test giver looking at her application and saying only, "You went to Xavier University. Two dollars." Regardless, she went and she helped other African Americans prepare for the test.

In 1955, she read a local newspaper article about twin sisters who worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as "computers" and the next day she applied. Within two weeks she was hired, one of four African Americans of about 2,500 employees. She began her career as a mathematician and computer engineer at the NACA Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory (which became NASA Lewis Research Center, 1958–1999, and subsequently the John H. Glenn Research Center) in Cleveland, Ohio. She continued her education while working for the agency and in 1977, she obtained a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Cleveland State University. As part of a continuing education, Easley worked through specialization courses offered by NASA. She originally had planned to finish her degree before this, but pharmacy wasn’t offered at her intended school, and instead she took this path.

While other male colleagues had their undergraduate tuition paid for, she had to pay for her courses with her own money. After she earned her degree NASA began to sponsor additional specialized courses.

Easley encountered other forms of discrimination as well. During a laboratory open house, a photo of her and the rest of her co-workers was blown up and displayed -- except her face was deliberately cut out of the picture. She did not let the act get to her, however. In an interview, she responded to the situation as saying:

"When people have their biases and prejudices, yes, I am aware. 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 discouraged that I'd walk away. That may be a solution for some people, but it's not mine."

Her 34-year career was remarkable. She learned computer programming and how to write code. Some of her assignments included studies in alternative energy, where she analyzed solar and wind technologies, identified energy-conversion systems and determined the life use of storage batteries. Her work especially informed the development of batteries that are used today in hybrid vehicles.

Her skills were also put to use when NASA was developing software for the Centaur, a high-energy booster rocket, known as "America's Workhorse in Space." Utilizing a mix of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, the Centaur proved to be the most powerful upper stage in the US space program. It would eventually be used to launch numerous communication and weather satellites as well as exploratory spacecraft like the Surveyor, Pioneer, Viking and Voyager. It was also a key factor in the launch of the Cassini spacecraft to Saturn in 1997.

Without Easley’s work, spaceflight would not likely be where it is today.

Sources:

https://www.engadget.com/2015/02/13/annie-easley/

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/annie-easley-computer-scientist

https://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/NASA_HQ/Herstory/EasleyAJ/EasleyAJ_8-21-01.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annie_Easley

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