In a previous post, we shared a video about five trailblazers who paved the way for future generations. This is the third blog in a series, where we will delve into the stories of these pioneering women and explore how their innovations have shaped the world we know today.
In our first blog, we traveled back to the 1800s to visit the high-society world of the first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace, and her eccentric inventor mentor. In our second blog, we highlighted the accomplishments of visionary programmer Dr. Adele Goldberg, who played a pivotal role in the development of modern computing and graphical user interfaces. In this third installment, we turn our attention to Annie Easley, a trailblazing woman who defied societal expectations to make significant contributions to the aerospace and energy industries.
Annie Easley first learned about the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) from a newspaper article about twin sisters. She was captivated by the story of these two women working as “human computers” in the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory in Ohio.
Encouraged by her mother, who always told her that she could be anything she wanted if she worked at it, Easley pursued her dreams. As the valedictorian of her high school class and naturally skilled with numbers, she applied to NACA and embarked on a remarkable career that would last 34 years. “It doesn’t matter what you look like, what your size is, what your color is,” Easley recalled her mother’s words in a 2001 interview conducted for NASA’s History Office “Herstory” Project. “But you have to work at it.”
Twelve years after retiring, Easley felt comedically unmoved about the technology she once worked on. When asked in her NASA interview if she was keeping up with modern computers, she decidedly admitted, “I’m not playing with them.” She passed away in 2011, but her work is still drawn on for modern space exploration, hybrid cars and more.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Born in 1933 in Birmingham, Alabama, Easley always loved school and was not afraid to express herself, even when it meant getting detention for talking back. She fondly recalled her mother, Mary Hoover’s encouragement and the supportive environment in which she and her friends were raised. “We weren’t born with silver spoons […], but we had parents who encouraged us,” she says. “We expected to work for it.”
Easley attended Xavier University in Louisiana and briefly returned to Alabama before marrying her husband and moving to Cleveland, Ohio. Initially wanting to pursue pharmacy (partially because the drugstore “had all of the candy and the ice cream,” Easley admits), she reconsidered when her local university closed their School of Pharmacy. After reading the NACA article, Easley began her career at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory (now the NASA Glenn Research Center). She and her colleagues were called “computers” and performed calculations to help engineers solve complex mathematical problems for their studies. Easley describes “huge calculators” they fed numbers into before handwriting the results these machines generated. From basic arithmetic to logarithms, Easley and her team had to know which tables to use and when to ensure the calculators had the correct instructions and figures.
“I just find it fascinating that it’s like historical, where we are today,” Easley reflects, marveling at how a tiny wristwatch can now perform functions that once required entire desktop setups.
Once mechanical computers were introduced, Easley transitioned to working with cards instead of by hand. She and her colleagues punched holes in “decks” of cards, feeding them to computers that would recognize the holes as instructions. Following those instructions, new holes were punched into new cards, which were then fed by humans to another machine to print answers on giant sheets of paper.
Easley used a programming language called Symbolic Optimal Assembly Programming (SOAP) when working with an early computer, the IBM 650, and her title changed from “computer” to “mathematics technician.”
Soon, Easley was learning to program code using the language FORTRAN, assisting in computations for projects like battery technology for hybrid vehicles. By that time, NASA had taken over the Lewis lab, setting Easley on the path to her famous work: “America’s workhorse in space,” the Centaur, a 35,000-pound rocket that used –400°F fuel and is thought to be named after the nearest star besides our Sun, Alpha Centauri.
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into Earth’s orbit, the first artificial Earth satellite. NASA was established a year later, and production of the Centaur, an upper-stage rocket designed to help the U.S. send heavy payloads (materials needed for a spacecraft’s mission) into Earth’s orbit, was handed over to NASA by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1959.
NASA viewed the Centaur booster as the key to studying planets, our moon and, of course, launching objects into Earth’s orbit. It burned a unique liquid-hydrogen/liquid-oxygen propellant, providing more thrust than typical kerosene-burning rockets. Lewis had already developed technology to handle these extremely cold propellants safely, and Abe Silverstein, Lewis’s second director, persuaded NASA to let him take over Centaur after countless issues and an initial launch that ended in an explosion.
Eager to contribute and excited about Lewis’s sudden doubling in staff members under NASA, Easley worked on Centaur’s launches at a test range at Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida. She used her coding skills to support its successful launch into space and its place in NASA history.
Centaur would go on to accomplish impressive feats. In 1966, it helped send the spacecraft Surveyor to the moon (the U.S.’s first soft moon landing) to capture photographs and gather data on its surface. It has helped launch observatories to explore space beyond our solar system, communications satellites into Earth’s orbit to support a global communication network and numerous other projects, continuing to support NASA missions to this day.
“I can remember the first pants that I wore to work,” Easley recounted to her NASA interviewer, noting there was never an official NACA dress code, but “women did not wear pants.” Wanting to wear a particular pantsuit, Easley hatched a plan with her room supervisor to both wear pants to work the next day. “We took the emphasis off what you’re wearing. It’s more like what you’re actually producing,” she explained. According to Easley, one colleague told her she had been waiting for the first woman to wear pants and never wore another dress after Easley’s challenge to the status quo.
Easley held a steadfast attitude toward workplace discrimination. “If I can’t work with you, I will work around you,” she claimed. She spoke up to her supervisor and NASA interviewers after being cropped out of a promotional photo despite her embarrassment about the roadblocks she faced when trying to return to school.
Eager to develop more skills, Easley began a degree in mathematics in the 1970s while still working full-time at NASA. She was told she would have to complete additional NASA-sponsored classes after she graduated, unlike others who were considered “professional” when joining NASA with the course, while she was deemed “subprofessional” despite her ten years of experience. Easley’s supervisor wouldn’t even investigate financial aid for her, despite other employees obtaining it. She later discovered funds would have been available had her supervisor pursued it, but he merely feigned ignorance.
“Was he just unaware, or did he choose to say, ‘You don’t deserve it,” Easley wondered. “I don’t know […] But he wouldn’t listen when I tried to give him an example.” She admits she always preferred to keep her focus on getting the job done, even though that isn’t the only way to see these things. “I was not about to be so discouraged that I’d walk away […] You may control my purse strings, but you don’t control my life.”
Easley brought about much positive change for herself and those around her. Before her career with NASA, Easley tutored Alabama residents on a voting test required of African American residents. She became a NASA Equal Employment Officer counselor (helping supervisors handle discrimination complaints from their employees), volunteered with NASA’s annual Christmas play and the Business and Professional Women’s Association, founded NASA’s ski club and spoke during school career days. She even drove astronauts in training around Lewis’s facilities, remembering one time she and a colleague caught a snake and put it in a box to scare another colleague.
Toward the end of her NASA interview, Easley was asked how she feels about Honda and Chrysler developing hybrid cars, a technology she worked on for Lewis’s battery lab. Always an advocate for maintaining a life outside her professional career, she stated, “I’m happy at the time when I see it, but my big thing now is trying to learn to snowboard.”
Anu Gade, a senior director of product management at Extreme Networks, has been keeping up with groundbreaking space technologies.
“I recently read about a company that’s using AI to build a health monitor for the planet,” Gade explains, referring to Indian space tech company, Pixxel. “Using high imaging technology, this monitor can unearth problems invisible to satellites in orbit today.”
Gade outlines that this monitor has many applications, such as monitoring crop health and yield for agriculture. Made up of a constellation of hyperspectral satellites, this monitor captures high-resolution images in hundreds of bands of color within the visible and infrared spectrum to track melting ice caps, natural gas leaks, soil stressors and more, providing key insights for preventative environmental action.
The space race is long over, but it is clear that space technology is still vital in providing forward-thinking solutions. “Climate change is a potential threat to the planet,” Gade stresses, looking to the stars, as Easley did, to find what advancements are in store for us, our planet and beyond.