"I just have my own attitude. I’m out here to get the job done, and I knew I had the ability to do it, and that’s where my focus was."
― Annie Easley
About Annie Easley
Annie Easley was a computer scientist, mathematician, and rocket scientist. She worked for the Lewis Research Center (now Glenn Research Center) of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Easley was a leading member of the team which developed software for the Centaur rocket stage, and was one of the first African-Americans to work at NASA. She was posthumously inducted into the Glenn Research Hall of Fame in 2015.
Easley was born to Samuel Bird Easley and Mary Melvina Hoover in Birmingham, Alabama. Before the Civil Rights Movement, educational and career opportunities for African-American children were very limited. African American children were educated separately from white children, and their schools were most often inferior to white schools. Annie was fortunate in that her mother told her that she could be anything she wanted but she would have to work at it. She encouraged Annie to get a good education. From the fifth grade through high school, Annie attended Holy Family High School, and was valedictorian of her graduating class.
After high school she went to Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana, which was then an African-American Roman Catholic University, and majored in pharmacy for about two years.
In 1954, she returned to Birmingham. As part of the Jim Crow laws that established and maintained racial inequality, African Americans were required to pass an onerous literacy test and pay a poll tax in order to vote. She remembers the test giver looking at her application and saying only, "You went to Xavier University. Two dollars." Subsequently, she helped other African Americans prepare for the test.
In 1955, Easley began her career as a “human computer,” doing computations for researchers. This involved analyzing problems and doing calculations by hand. When hired, she was one of only four African-American employees at the Lab. In a 2001 interview she said that she had never set out to be a pioneer. “I just have my own attitude. I’m out here to get the job done, and I knew I had the ability to do it, and that’s where my focus was.” Even in the face of discrimination, she persevered. “My head is not in the sand. But my thing is, if I can’t work with you, I will work around you. I was not about to be [so] discouraged that I’d walk away. That may be a solution for some people, but it’s not mine.”
When human computers were replaced by machines, Easley evolved along with the technology. She became an adept computer programmer, using languages like Fortran and the Simple Object Access Protocol to support a number of NASA’s programs. She developed and implemented code used in researching energy-conversion systems, analyzing alternative power technology—including the battery technology that was used for early hybrid vehicles, as well as for the Centaur upper-stage rocket.
In the 1970s, Easley returned to school to earn her degree in mathematics from Cleveland State, doing much of her coursework while also working full time. A firm believer in education and in her mother’s advice “You can be anything you want to be, but you have to work at it,” Easley was very dedicated in her outreach efforts at NASA. She not only participated in school tutoring programs but was a very active participant in the speaker’s bureau—telling students about NASA’s work and inspiring especially female and minority students to consider STEM careers.
Later in her career, she took on the additional role of equal employment opportunity counselor. In this role she helped supervisors address issues of gender, race, and age in discrimination complaints at the lowest level and in the most cooperative way possible. In addition to her technical and outreach activities, Easley was a champion of employee morale. She was a founding member of the Ski Club and was very active in the annual children’s Christmas play, Center athletics, and the Business & Professional Women’s association.
Easley would humbly state that she never set out to be a role model or trailblazer. Many who knew her would say that it was not just the work that she did that made a difference; it was her energy and positive attitude that had a tremendous impact on the Center.
In the 35-page transcript of her 2001 NASA oral history interview, Easley consistently emphasizes the importance of teamwork and expresses appreciation and admiration for those she worked with. There are many illustrations throughout her career of her determination and discipline, kindness, and generosity. Her work with the Centaur project helped lay the technological foundations for future space shuttle launches and launches of communication, military and weather satellites. Specifically, it contributed to the 1997 flight to Saturn of the Cassini probe, the launcher of which had the Centaur as its upper stage.
Easley retired in 1989, but she remained an active participant in the Speaker’s Bureau and the Business & Professional Women’s association. Annie Easley passed away on June 25, 2011.