Remembering Annie J. Easley, the barrier-breaking ‘human computer’ at NASA

Michael Eli Dokosi Jun 18, 2020 at 03:00pm

June 18, 2020 at 03:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence, History

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

June 18, 2020 at 03:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence, History

Annie Easley via NASA

Although born to Samuel Bird Easley and Mary Melvina Hoover in 1933, Annie J. Easley and her brother would be raised by their mum who instilled in her a need to take education seriously. Easley threw herself in studies early on and graduated as her class valedictorian.

Although she had set her hopes on becoming either a teacher or nurse, she would eventually take to pharmacy enrolling at Xavier University, a black Catholic school in New Orleans, Louisiana for two years.

Upon completion of her two-year course, she returned to her hometown of Birmingham and in 1954, married a man in the U.S. military and worked as a substitute teacher in Jefferson County, Alabama. In between teaching, she helped members of her community prepare for literacy tests required for voter registration as literacy tests were a ploy to exclude African Americans from voting. They were also tasked to pay a poll tax in order to vote. It was not until 1965 that the Voting Rights Act eliminated the literacy test.

When Easley’s husband got discharged from the military, the couple moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to be near his family. She had hoped to continue her education; however the only pharmacy program in the region had recently closed.

“In 1955, she read a story in a local newspaper about twin sisters who worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as “computers”. She applied for a job the next day, and was hired two weeks later – one of four African-Americans of about 2500 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, 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.”

“Annie J. Easley spent her 34-year career working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She started there as a “human computer.” Later she became one of the first black computer programmers, working on alternative-energy technologies, energy-conservation systems, and the Centaur launch system. During her career “Easley was transferred laterally three times, but did not receive any significant promotions.”

Easley worked in the Computer Services Division, performing complex mathematical calculations for the engineering staff. Among other projects, she simulated conditions for a nuclear reactor being constructed at Plum Creek, Ohio.

Given that the space race between United States and Soviet Union was intense at the time, Easley later told Sandra Johnson: “There was a real pride in being able to have talent, resources, and knowing that we could get in here and really, really do something great.” With the introduction of electronic computers, the job titles of the human computers were changed to mathematician or math technician.

During the late 1960s and 1970s Easley worked on nuclear-powered rocket systems. Her work with the Centaur project helped lay the technological foundations for future space shuttle launches and launches of communication, military and weather satellites. Her work contributed to the 1997 flight to Saturn of the Cassini probe, the launcher of which had the Centaur as its upper stage.

In the 1960s through the 1970s, Easley returned to school, taking as much as three classes, while working full-time. She even took a three-month leave without pay to finish up, earning her Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics from Cleveland State University in 1977. An example of institutional racism was NASA which generally paid for work-related employee education, turned down Easley’s applications making her pay for her courses from her coffers. However, once she had earned her degree, the Personnel Department decided that she needed more specialized courses to be considered a professional.

During the 1970s, Easley worked on a project examining damage to the ozone layer. While completing her degree, Easley traveled to colleges and universities encouraging younger students to explore their interests in what would later be known as the STEM field. She also worked as an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) counselor, addressing race, gender, and age discrimination complaints from NASA employees.

Later on in life, she took up skiing in her 40s. She founded and served as the first president of the NASA Lewis Ski Club.

Annie J. Easley, who broke down barriers for women and people of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) fields, died on June 25, 2011, aged 78.  Her legacy continues to inspire countless students to make an impact in the STEM field.

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