Working at NASA before it was even called NASA, Annie Easley was a leading pioneer in computer coding. During a time when black people weren’t allowed to sit at the same table as their white counterparts let alone work for them, Easley was crucial to getting military, weather, and communication satellites into space. How did she become one of the leading black women in tech?
Annie Easley’s Early Career
Annie Easley was born in Birmingham, AL and raised by a single mother who told her “you can do anything you want to, but you have to work at it.” And that she did, moving to New Orleans to attend Xavier University to pursue a degree in pharmacy. She left without finishing, moving to Cleveland when she got married. She tried to go back to her pharmaceutical studies but the local pharmacy school shut down. But one fateful day in 1955, she opened up a Cleveland newspaper and read an article about twin sisters working as human computers at NACA (aka the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). She applied for the job the very next day and was hired.
But wait, what is a human computer? If you remember the movie Hidden Figures, it was a person who had to do analyze data and do mathematical calculations for engineers and researchers. Women were able to land jobs like these back in Easley’s time.
Annie Easley and the Centaur Project
When the Soviet Union launched the first satellite to orbit the earth, the United States government got a little jealous. NACA was scrapped and NASA (short for National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was created in its place. All the while Easley was still running calculations for the agency engineers in the Computer Services Division, being only one of four black employees in a staff of 2,500 people.
In order for the US to get its own satellites into space, NASA needed to have high powered rockets to launch them. The Centaur was one of those rockets and Easley was part of making that rocket a reality. Her coding skills helped put together the energy conversion system that get this kind of rocket into space during the late 1960s. The Centaur became NASA’s “workhouse in space” launching many US satellites into space.
Annie Easley’s Legacy
Easley’s programming skills went far beyond the Centaur project. When actual computers began to do the heavy calculating, she adapted, learning how to code using programming languages like Fortran (short for Formula Translating System) and Simple Object Access Protocol (aka SOAP). She went back to school while working full-time, even when NASA refused to pay for it because she was black. In 1977 she earned her Bachelor of Degree in Science from Cleveland University. She continued her coding and research of energy systems at NASA for the next thirty-four years, retiring in 1984. She continued to inspire black women in tech until she passed away on June 25, 2011.