“It’s not rocket science.” We’ve heard that all our lives when someone compares something simple to something extremely difficult. But how many people could respond to that statement by saying they’re actually a rocket scientist, and a legendary one at that? For Annie Easley, she is that and so much more. A true pioneer in women’s history and Black history, Easley was a computer scientist, mathematician, and NASA rocket scientist. She was a leader on the team that developed software for the Centaur rocket stage, and was one of the first African-American employees both at the Plum Brook Reactor Facility and at NASA.
Born in the 1930s in Alabama, segregation dictated a large part of her childhood. As a substitute teacher in the 1950s in Alabama, she would help members of the local community prepare for literacy tests that were required for voter registration. The tests were a method to restrict African-Americans from voting, but Easley was determined to help fight back against these barriers. She moved to Cleveland, Ohio in 1954 and applied for a position at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory, which was eventually absorbed by NASA. Without a college degree or previous professional experience in mathematics or computing, she got the job based on her incredible mathematical talents and problem solving skills. There began a 34-year career with NASA.
In 1958, she was one of only four Black employees in the computational department at NASA. As technology quickly developed, Easley continued to learn and adapt her skills to grow her role. She became a computer programmer, developing and implementing code used in major projects such as energy-conversion systems and the aforementioned Centaur upper-stage rocket. She was also instrumental in analyzing alternative power technologies, including solar and wind projects, and the use of storage batteries in the early stages of electric utility vehicles.
But it was not all smooth sailing. While NASA offered her continuing education, she was denied financial aid that other employees received, without explanation. There was also an incident in which her face was cut out of a picture to put on display. Nonetheless, she fought through the challenging times and worked in four departments: Computer Science Division, Energy Directorate, Launch Vehicles Group and the Engineering Directorate. In an interview published to the NASA Headquarters Oral History Project, she admitted none of her moves between departments were promotions, likely due to racial or gender discrimination.
She would end up returning to school at Cleveland State University to complete a degree in mathematics while continuing to work full time. While in school, Easley once again gave back to her community, aiding in the fight against prejudice. She tutored young female and minority students, encouraging them to learn about STEM careers. She also worked as an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor for NASA, addressing concerns from women, minorities and age-based discrimination cases.
“Discrimination of any kind can affect a lot of different people, and sometimes those people don’t realize it until later on, when they’re affected. They can begin to look back and say, ‘Oh, that’s how someone felt,' because now they’re on the other end,” Easley said.
Easley’s work in STEM transcended NASA and is part of our daily lives which we often take for granted, such as technological foundations for launches of communication, military and weather satellites. She retired in 1989 and remained on the Speaker’s Bureau and the Business & Professional Women’s Association for much longer. Annie Easley passed away in 2011. We celebrate her incredible career and her drive to end segregation and inequalities.