Annie J. Easley was a leading member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. A mathematician and a rocket scientist, she developed the software for the Centaur rocket stage, which has successfully lifted many satellites into geosynchronous orbit and propelled deep space probes in interplanetary trajectories.
Born in Alabama in 1933, Annie grew up in a climate of racial segregation within the education system. Despite this, her mother encouraged her to get a good education, instilling in her the belief that she could achieve anything if she worked for it – spurred on by her advice, Annie thoroughly enjoyed her school years, and graduated valedictorian in her class.
Annie enrolled in Louisiana’s Xavier University to major in pharmacy, but after two years, relocated to Cleveland after getting married. Upon arrival, it was to her dismay that she discovered the local university had closed their school of pharmacy, with no alternative available for continuing her studies.
However, the silver lining came in 1955 – Annie was reading a newspaper article about two twin sisters who worked as ‘computers’ at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NASA’s predecessor). Captivated by the job they described, she drove to NACA the next day to submit an application form. She was hired within two weeks, and took her steps into a 34-year career as a leading mathematician, computer scientist, and rocket scientist.
At a time when machine calculation was limited to key-punched cards fed into machines capable only of multiplication, addition, subtraction, and division, Annie was responsible for calculating complex mathematical functions needed by the scientists by hand. After several years as a NACA computer, Annie decided mathematics was better suited to her interests than pharmacy, and transitioned into the former for the rest of her career. She continued her education alongside her work at the agency, and in 1977 achieved a BSc. in Mathematics from Cleveland State University.
Following her graduation, Annie began working in NASA’s Launch Vehicles Division, where she frequently travelled to Florida to assist in both manned and unmanned launches. With the support of the agency, Annie participated in continuing education programmes to enhance her training. She developed and implemented a computer code that analysed alternative solar and wind energy technologies for electric vehicles, and was assigned to determine the life use of storage batteries – her work on the latter paved the way for the battery development of modern Hybrid cars.
What’s more, Annie developed the software for the Centaur project – a high-energy rocket stage responsible for the 1997 launch of the Cassini probe. Annie’s work on the Centaur project set the stage for the technological foundations of the Space Shuttle, as well as the launches of communication, military and weather satellites.
During her time at NASA, Annie co-authored several papers on the topics of nuclear rocket engine systems, and the economics of combined-cycle cogeneration power plants. Outside of her busy career setting the stage for modern spaceflight, Annie also enjoyed athletics – she was a founding member and President of NASA’s ski club, skiing regularly all over the world, playing tennis and golf, and later running for competition.
Despite her obvious abilities, Annie’s career was not without obstacles; in an interview in 2001, Annie recalled her experiences of discrimination in the workplace. In one instance, she was cut out of a six-person work photograph when it was put on display to the public, as the only minority member of the team. On reflecting on her experience, Annie said:
‘When people have their biases and prejudices, yes, I am aware. 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. So yes, I’m sure, I, like many others, have been judged not on what I can do, but on what I look like. So yes, I’m aware that that has happened. But, as I said, I would not let that get me down. Money is important to all of us. We need it to survive. You may control my purse strings, but you don’t control my life. That’s just the way I feel about it.’
Across her career, Annie lent vast support to the development of aeronautics and energy systems. She will not be forgotten as a key frontrunner of an era that made many innovations in space exploration a modern reality.