Annie J. Easley was born in April 1933 in Birmingham, Alabama and died in June 2011 in Cleveland, Ohio at the age of 78. She was an African – American mathematician, rocket scientist, and computer scientist. Easley worked for NASA’s (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Lewis Research Center (currently known as Glenn Research Center). She also served under NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Easley is accredited for being one of the first African-Americans to work for NASA as a computer scientist and being a leading member of the team responsible for developing software for the Centaur rocket stage (Warren, 1999).
Easley’s 34-year career involved developing as well as implementing crucial computer codes that would support centaur, analyze alternative power technologies, identify alternative systems that would provide solutions to energy problems, develop energy conversion systems, and determine viable wind, solar and energy projects. Her energy assignments encompassed studies that would determine the life use of storage batteries like those used in electric utility motor vehicles. Easley’s computer applications have been utilized in determining energy conversion systems that intensify and offer an improvement over commercially available technologies. Her work with the Centaur project was very useful in technological foundations for launches of military, weather, and communication satellites as well as space shuttle launches. Most importantly, her work significantly contributed to the 1997 flight to Saturn of the Cassini probe, launched by Centaur (Shaw, 2011, p.81).
Childhood and Education
Annie Easley was born on 23rd April 1933 in Birmingham, Alabama to Samuel Bird Easley(father) and Mary Melvina Hoover (mother). Together with her six-year older brother, Easley was raised up by a single mother. She attended parochial schools in Birmingham and became valedictorian of her graduating class from Holy Family High School. Her mother always motivated her that she could become anything she wanted if she worked hard. However, before the Civil Rights Movement, career and educational opportunities for Black-American children were very scarce. Moreover, white children and African Americans were educated separately, and the latter had relatively inferior schools. As a child, Annie believed that teaching and nursing were the only careers open to African-American women. She did not want to teach, and therefore she settled for pursuing nursing. However, while in high school, she changed her mind and wanted and thought of becoming a pharmacist. In a 2001 interview done as part of the History office of NASA (Herstory project), Easley told Sandra Johnson that "it may have something to do with going to the corner drugstore, where they had all of the candy and the ice cream."
Easley later attended Xavier University, then a black Roman Catholic school in New Orleans, Louisiana where she studied pharmacy for two years. She was married in 1954 and briefly returned to Birmingham. She then worked in Jefferson County in Alabama as a substitute teacher and helped Africans Americans prepare for the literacy tests they were required to pass so as they can register to vote. Easley moved to Cleveland, Ohio after her husband was discharged from the military. Although she intended to continue her education, the only pharmacy program in this region had closed recently. Unfortunately, no nearby alternative existed. In 1977, Easley would obtain a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from the Cleveland State University (Gale, 2005).
Career at NACA/NASA
In 1955, Annie read a story in the newspaper about twin sisters working as human computers at the nearby NACA. The role of human computers was to perform computations and calculations for engineers. The job was very intriguing to her because she always found math to be an easy and enjoyable subject. Annie applied for a position at NACA and got the job two weeks later. She was lucky to be one of the only four African-Americans on staff out of the around 2,500 workers. NACA would later become NASA's Lewis Research Center, which later became the John H. Glenn Research Center.
As NACA transitioned to NASA, Easley would experience a turning point in her career. She changed roles from being a human computer to being a math technician as her department received actual computers to work out the calculations. It’s around this time that Easley would pursue a degree in mathematics from the Cleveland State University while she worked full-time. She also attended classes full-time. Although the organization paid tuition fees for her male colleagues, Easley had to pay for her courses using her own money. Nevertheless, NASA would sponsor additional courses she enrolled for after earning her degree. Easley would also encounter other forms of discrimination. At one time during a laboratory open house, a photo of her and her co-workers was taken and put on display, but her face was cut out of the picture deliberately. However, she would not let this get to her, and she never quit working. Easley’s education would also transform as technology evolved. She would learn computer programming and how to write codes using languages such as FORTRAN and SOAP (Lee, 2015).
Contribution on Equal Rights
Annie served as Lewis’s Equal Employment Opportunity officer and looked into discrimination complaints. She was part of the Speakers Bureau and gave talks on the technological spin-offs of research conducted by NASA. She often traveled to universities and colleges and recruited more engineers for the lab. She often represented NASA at college and school career days.
Contribution to solving energy problems
Easley was part and parcel of the project that examined damage to the ozone layer in the 1970s.She started working on energy problems since there were enormous cuts in the NASA space program. She developed and used computer programs to determine solar wind and solve problems of energy monitoring and conversion, including technologies for solar energy and wind power. One of her studies involved the lifespan and impact of storage batteries in electric vehicles.
Easley developed nuclear-powered rocket systems in the late 1960s and “70s. She’s also accredited for working on the Centaur project, a high energy booster rocket with a propulsion system made of mixed liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen. Its first launch in 1963 was successful, and over the next 30 years, it underwent further developments and was considered one of the greatest achievements of the Lewis Research Center. It was referred to as NASA’s workhorse in space, and its functions were to launch military, weather, and communications satellites and space vehicles including the Cassini spacecraft to Saturn in 1997. Annie would occasionally travel to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to observe the launches (Couch, 2015).
Most of Easley’s coworkers easily described her as a person who loved life and always encouraged others to do the same. She was a champion of employee morale apart from her technical and outreach activities. She also founded the Ski Club and was very active in the annual Center athletics, Christmas plays, and the Business & Professional Women’s Association. However, she would humbly declare that she never set out to be a trailblazer or a role model. Many who knew Annie Easley would state that it wasn’t only the work she did that created a difference; it was her positive attitude and energy that resulted in a tremendous impact on the Center. In her 2001 NASA oral history interview, a 35-page transcript, Annie expresses admiration and appreciation for those she worked with and consistently emphasizes on the significance of teamwork. Throughout her career, there are many illustrations of kindness, generosity, determination and discipline. Although she retired in 1989, she remained an active member of the Business & Professional Women’s Association and still participated in the Speaker’s Bureau. Annie J. Easley passed away on 25th June 2011 due to natural causes (Mills, 2015).
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