Annie Easley: A Lifetime of Shooting for the Stars
Annie Easley’s extraordinary life as a computer programmer, mathematician, and rocket scientist was guided by her mother’s words of wisdom: “You can be anything you want to. It doesn’t matter what you look like, what your size is, what your color is. You can be anything you want to, but you do have to work at it.”
Without Annie Easley, hybrid vehicles (or spaceflight as we know it) might not exist. During her 34-year career at NASA, she also worked on alternative energy, storage batteries, and was key to development of Centaur, a high energy booster rocket. According to NASA, she “developed and implemented code used in researching energy-conversion systems, and analyzed alternative power technology.” Across Annie’s various projects, her drive, desire to learn, and perseverance remained constant. In her words, “Everything I ever worked on has brought satisfaction, knowing that I was a part of doing something.”
Born in Birmingham in 1933 to a single mother, Annie never shied away from hard work. After graduating high school as valedictorian, she began delving into STEM by studying pharmacy at Xavier University. When she married and moved to Cleveland, she discovered that the School of Pharmacy at the local university had been shut down – but that didn’t slow her down! In 1955, shortly after arriving in Cleveland, Annie read a newspaper article about twin sisters who worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as human computers, and she was inspired to apply for the same position. As she said in a 2001 interview, “math was never a problem for me. I felt fortunate that school was fun for me… I thoroughly enjoyed school.”
She began the job as one of four African-Americans at the local organization. Annie was no stranger to discrimination, but said, “I didn’t feel like I’m a minority… I just have my own attitude. I’m here to work. You may look at me, someone else may look at me, and see something different, but that’s okay. But I’m out here to do a job and I knew I had the ability to do it, and that’s where my focus was, on getting the job done.”
Throughout her career at NASA, Annie never stopped learning. She worked full time and attended classes full time, graduating with a degree in mathematics in 1977 from Cleveland State University. As the tech world emerged she adapted to thrive in it, learning computer programming languages such as SOAP and FORTRAN.
Annie’s impact and influence weren’t limited to her career – she devoted much of her time to bettering her workplace and community. As an EEO counselor at NASA she ”helped supervisors address issues of gender, race, and age.” She also taught other African-Americans how to pass the required literacy test in order to vote and tutored students in her community, inspiring female and minority students to explore STEM. Annie even pioneered a wardrobe change for women at NASA when she and her room supervisor made a pact to wear pants to work. “We took the emphasis off what you’re wearing,” she recalls. “It’s more like what you’re actually producing.”
How can girls and minorities break into STEM? “Take any possible courses, math courses, that are being offered, at the earliest opportunity,” Annie advised. She also spoke to the importance of perseverance: “Don’t give up on it. Just stick with it. Don’t listen to people who always tell you it’s hard, and walk away from it.”
Annie’s advice to those entering the workforce extends beyond those interested in STEM, and it reflects the earnestness and strength with which she formed her career. “Prepare yourself for whatever field you want to do,” she said. “I don’t expect of you to be engineers or scientists or mathematicians… There are so many different fields, but prepare yourself to be something.”
Despite facing the barriers created by being a woman in STEM, and specifically an African-American woman, Annie Easley maintained an admirable strength and determination. “Nothing was given to minorities or women,” she said. “It took some fighting to get that equal opportunity and we’re still fighting today.”
Let’s empower the young girls in our lives to continue to fight for what they want, in STEM and beyond. Introduce the girls in your life to programming with Tynker to give them a head-start on their own education and career!
This article is part of a series on women in STEM – check our blog soon for the next one!