Easley, Annie J.

views updated

Easley, Annie J.


Computer scientist

Annie J. Easley spent her 34-year career working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She started there as a "human computer." Later she became one of the first black computer programmers, working on alternative-energy technologies, energy-conservation systems, and the Centaur launch system. During her career Easley was transferred laterally three times, but did not receive any significant promotions.

Planned to Become a Pharmacist

Born on April 23, 1933, in Birmingham, Alabama, Annie J. Easley was the daughter of Samuel Bird Easley and Mary Melvina Hoover. Easley and her brother, six years older, were raised by their single mother. From the fifth grade through high school, Annie Easley attended parochial schools in Birmingham, graduating as class valedictorian. Although her mother told her that if she worked hard she could become whatever she wanted, Easley thought that nursing and teaching were the only careers open to black women. Since she didn't want to teach, Easley intended to become a nurse. However in high school she began thinking about becoming a pharmacist. Easley told Sandra Johnson in a 2001 interview conducted as part of NASA's History Office "Herstory" Project 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 studied pharmacy for two years at Xavier University, a black Catholic school in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1954 she married and briefly returned to Birmingham. She worked as a substitute teacher in Jefferson County, Alabama, and helped blacks prepare for the literacy tests that they were required to pass in order to register to vote.

After Easley's husband was discharged from the military, the couple moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to be near his family. Easley hoped to continue her education. However the only pharmacy program in the region had recently closed.

Hired as a "Human Computer"

One day in 1955 Easley read a newspaper story about twin sisters who worked as computers at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), NASA's predecessor at the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland. The work sounded so interesting that the following day Easley applied for a job there.

Easley worked in the Computer Services Division, performing complex mathematical calculations for the engineering staff. Among other projects, she simulated conditions for a nuclear reactor being constructed at Plum Creek, Ohio. The human computers-almost all female-used tables and large mechanical calculators to perform their work. At the time Easley was one of only four blacks among the agency's 2,500 employees. She told Johnson: "I'm out here to do a job and I knew I had the ability to do it, and that's where my focus was, on getting the job done. I was not intentionally trying to be a pioneer." When a photo of Easley and her coworkers was enlarged for display at a laboratory open house, her face was cut out of the picture.

It was the dawn of the space age and the United States was competing with the Soviet Union. In 1957 the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the Earth, and the space race heated up. NACA became NASA. Easley told Johnson: "There was a real pride in being able to have talent, resources, and knowing that we could get in here and really, really do something great." With the introduction of electronic computers, the job titles of the human computers were changed to mathematician or math technician.

Worked on the Centaur

During the late 1960s and 1970s Easley worked on nuclear-powered rocket systems. She also worked on the Centaur, a high-energy booster rocket with a mixed liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen propulsion system. First launched successfully in 1963, over the next 30 years it went through further development and was considered one of the Lewis Research Center's greatest achievements. Known as NASA's "workhorse in space," it was used to launch communications, weather, and military satellites and space vehicles, including the 1997 Cassini spacecraft to Saturn. Easley sometimes traveled to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to observe the launches.

In the 1960s Easley returned to school, taking one class at a time. In the 1970s she started taking two, then three classes, while working full-time. Toward the end, she took a three-month leave without pay to finish up, earning her Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics from Cleveland State University in 1977. For part of that period she worked a six-day flexible schedule. Although NASA generally paid for work-related employee education, Easley was always turned down for aid and so she paid for her own courses. However once she had earned her degree, the Personnel Department decided that she needed more specialized courses to be considered a professional. Thus Easley undertook additional NASA-sponsored training, including a course in Houston, Texas.

During the 1970s Easley worked on a project examining damage to the ozone layer. With massive cuts in the NASA space program, Easley began working on energy problems. She developed and implemented computer programs for determining solar wind and for solving problems of energy monitoring and conversion, including technologies for wind power and solar energy. One of her studies involved determining the life of storage batteries used in electric vehicles.

Actively Participated in Work

Following the energy crisis of the late 1970s Easley studied the economic advantages of co-generating power plants that obtained byproducts from coal and steam. She was also responsible for monitoring electricity use at Lewis.

Easley served as Lewis's Equal Employment Opportunity officer, investigating complaints of discrimination. She belonged to the Speakers Bureau and gave talks on the technological spin-offs of NASA's research. Easley traveled to colleges and universities, recruiting engineers for the lab. She often represented NASA at school and college career days.

Easley's social life was centered at Lewis. Taking up skiing in her 40s, she founded and served as the first president of the NASA Lewis Ski Club. She also belonged to the running club and the Suggestion Awards Committee. Outside of Lewis Easley tutored school children and high-school dropouts who were returning to school.

At a Glance …

Born Annie J. Easley on April 23, 1933, in Birmingham, AL; married 1954 (divorced). Education: Xavier University, New Orleans, LA, 1952-54; Cleveland State University, BS, mathematics, 1977.


NACA Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory (later NASA Lewis Research Center, John H. Glenn Research Center), Cleveland, OH, Computer Services Division, 1955-1979, Energy Directorate, 1979-80s, Engineering Directorate, Launch Vehicles Group, 1980s-1989, mathematician and computer engineer; Century 21 Beyond 2000 Realty Co., Parma Heights, OH, agent, 1990s-.


Glen Business and Professional Women's Organization, charter member; Greater Cleveland Ski Council, president; NASA Lewis Ski Club, founder and president; NASA Lewis Speakers Bureau.


Office—Century 21 Beyond 2000 Realty Co., 6370 York Rd., Parma Heights, OH 44130-3051.

Easley retired from NASA in 1989. She did volunteer work, took up snowboarding, and served as president of the Greater Cleveland Ski Council. She also took real-estate courses and became a real-estate agent. In 2000 Easley participated in the Association for Computer Machinery-Mills College Conference on Pioneering Women in Computing.

Selected writings


(With A. F. Kascak) Effect of Turbulent Mixing on Average Fuel Temperatures in a Gas-Core Nuclear Rocket Engine, NASA Technical Note D-4882, November, 1968.

(With A. F. Kascak) Bleed Cycle Propellant Pumping in a Gas-Core Nuclear Rocket Engine System, NASA Technical Memo X-2517, March 1972.

(With others) Performance and Operational Economics Estimates for a Coal Gasification Combined-Cycle Cogeneration Powerplant, NASA Technical Memo 82729, March, 1982.



"Annie J. Easley," World of Computer Science, Gale Group, 2002.

Black Contributors to Science and Energy Technology, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Public Affairs, 1979, p. 19.

Sammmons, Vivian Ovelton, Blacks in Science and Medicine, Hemisphere, 1990.

Warren, Wini, Black Women Scientists in the United States, Indiana University Press, 1999, pp. 87-88.


"African American Inventor," Southern California Edison, www.sce.com/Sc3/Templates/SupportAndervicesCategory.aspx?NRMODE=Published& NRNODEGUID=%7bC877DAF4-A8B7-492E-86EE-BFC27EA1DEA1%7d&NRORIGINALURL=%2fsc3%2fInventors%2fInventorsd-h& NRCACHEHINT=Guest (February 28, 2007).

"Annie J. Easley," NASA Oral History, www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/NASA_HQ/Herstory/EasleyAJ/AJE_8-21-01.pdf (February 28, 2007).