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This is a moment for new names. Follow NASA’s lead.

June 26, 2020, 12:45 PM UTC
HAMPTON, VA - 1977: Mathmatician Mary Jackson, the first black woman engineer at NASA poses for a photo at work at NASA Langley Research Center in 1977 in Hampton, Virginia. (Photo by Bob Nye/NASA/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)
Bob Nye—NASA/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! The Dixie Chicks drop the “Dixie,” Carly Fiorina is on board with Biden, and NASA HQ gets a new name. Have a wonderful weekend. 

– Welcome to Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters. It’s a moment for new names.

NASA this week announced that it’s naming its Washington, D.C. headquarters after Mary W. Jackson, the agency’s first black female engineer who helped U.S. astronauts reach space.

“Mary W. Jackson was part of a group of very important women who helped NASA succeed in getting American astronauts into space. Mary never accepted the status quo, she helped break barriers and open opportunities for African Americans and women in the field of engineering and technology,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.

Jackson, memorably portrayed by Janelle Monáe in the film Hidden Figures, started at NASA’s predecessor organization in 1951, working in a segregated computing unit of what’s now the Langley Research Center. She later worked on NASA’s 4×4 supersonic pressure tunnel and was promoted to engineer after successfully petitioning the City of Hampton to receive additional training alongside white students.

Jackson’s daughter, Carol Lewis, has expressed gratitude that her mother’s accomplishments are being recognized, but also says it’s sad that it took so long and happened after her death.

We denote honor on public figures in a variety of modern ways—building names, street names, statues, and placards. In every medium, women are woefully underrepresented. A few years ago, just 394 of the U.S.’s 5,193 public statues of historic figures were women. None of the 44 maintained by the National Parks Service focused on women specifically. When women are depicted, they rarely get real names. (See: Statue of Liberty.) A 2015 study of street names in seven cities found that of those named after people, nearly three-fourths honored men. As of 2018, no airports were named after women despite so many female contributions to aviation.

Names matter. They dot our physical world, permeate our cultural lexicon, and color our collective memory.

The reckoning with racism is scrubbing away so many names—not from history but from places of prominence. Deciding what goes in their place is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to honor—as NASA did—overlooked heroes, past and present.

Claire Zillman

Today’s Broadsheet was curated by Emma Hinchliffe


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