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Alabama female mathematician blazed new trails at NASA

Astronauts who walk on the moon or take flights into outer space capture lots of attention. But few people think about the people who have spent hours working behind the scenes to make those “giant leaps for mankind” happen.

Jeanette Scissum was one of the behind-the-scenes contributors. Like those early explorers of the last frontier, she broke through barriers as the first Black female mathematician at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

Scissum, 81, believes the opportunity to work at the space flight center came because she was “at the right place at the right time.”

While in college, a classmate who worked at Marshall told Scissum that the space flight center was looking for Blacks for its co-op program. Learning there were no openings in her field, she got a job teaching at Councill Training School (now Madison County High School) in Huntsville in 1961 but quickly realized it was not for her.

“I put too much stress on myself,” she said. “I was very young, with high expectations. I took every student’s problem to heart and ended up with an ulcer.”

Wanting a change, Scissum continued to apply for a job at Marshall until she finally got a break.

“My mother worked for the mother of the personnel director at Marshall,” said Scissum. “She told my mother to tell me to give her son a call, and I did. I told him I had been applying and had not received a response. He said, ‘We’ll take care of that.’”

The result: Scissum came on board as a mathematician at Marshall Space Flight Center in 1963.

During those early years, Scissum worked on a team doing mathematical and statistical analysis of space environment data/parameters.

Then, in 1967, Scissum received an assignment that led to one of her most significant contributions to the space program. She wrote a computer program that could be used to forecast the sunspot cycle and then published her findings in a NASA report called, “Survey of Solar Cycle Prediction Models.”

Scissum moved to the Space Environment Branch of Marshall’s Space Sciences Laboratory in the mid-1970s. As a space scientist, she led activities in the center’s Atmospheric, Magnetospheric and Plasmas in Space project.

Scissum said as a Black woman at Marshall, she faced “pushback” from some of the men in the early days of her career.

“I was harassed a little bit, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle,” she said. “Some of the men felt I had no business in the workforce because my husband had a job.”

Leaders at Marshall recognized Scissum’s passion for promoting inclusion and diversity and invited her to become an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) officer at the facility in 1973.

“I was successful in resolving cases involving white men and women, but I had a harder time helping the Black people,” she said. “A lot of times, it wasn’t an EEO problem but a communications issue. All it required most of the time was sitting down together and talking about the issue and working out a solution.”

Scissum said her efforts to fight for other employees almost put her career in jeopardy. She was warned that management was not happy because she handled so many complaints.

“That didn’t stop me,” she said. “I told them ‘I thought you wanted me to resolve problems.’”

In the end, Scissum’s work in this area did not go unnoticed. In recognition of her contributions, she received NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program Award. Scissum wrote an article in 1975 for the National Technical Association noting that the key to avoiding most discrimination complaints is good communication.

Looking back, Scissum said her career path was no surprise. Her father, a sharecropper and farmer in Marshall County, saw his daughter’s promise soon after she began elementary school.

“My dad used to tell me all the time that I would go to college,” said Scissum. “I was a good student, and I think he saw my potential with numbers.”

After high school, Scissum had no idea how to make that prediction come true, since her father was in a Tuskegee hospital and her family struggling to make ends meet. But thanks to a work scholarship, she made her father’s dream a reality, becoming the only one of the family’s six children to attend college.

Scissum received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics at Alabama A&M in the 1960s and 1970s. While working at Marshall, she taught herself how to use the computer.

“I enjoyed math. But after a while, I wanted to move on to something else, and that’s how I got interested in computers,” she said.

Scissum moved to Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland in 1979, where she worked as a computer scientist for 18 months. She transferred to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., as a computer systems analyst. Scissum managed the development and implementation of technical support systems for NASA headquarters and NASA centers until her retirement in 2005. She and her husband live on a farm in Brownsboro near Huntsville,

Like her father, Scissum has encouraged her four children and six grandchildren to pursue higher education. Her grandson, Kuni Scissum, said his grandmother is his inspiration.

“My grandmother was very encouraging and always believed that we could do great things,” said Kuni, an engineer for Southern Company Research and Development. “Growing up, she was always my kind, sweet grandmother. It was not until high school that I realized she was a great scientist and mathematician. She is one of the motivators that led me to become an engineer.”

Acting NASA Chief Historian Brian Odom said Scissum made her mark at NASA as a mathematician and a counselor working on behalf of her fellow employees.

“Born into the segregated world of a pre-civil rights era South, Jeanette overcame tremendous obstacles not only to come to work for the space program but to make important contributions to our knowledge of the solar cycles,” he said. “Beyond that, Jeanette continued the fight for diversity and inclusion at the agency to ensure those who came behind her would also find a place at NASA.

“Jeanette is an excellent example of someone who refused to submit to the constraints of her circumstances,” he added. “She is a true trailblazer who never gave up on the idea that the world could be made a better place and, in the process, held open the door of opportunity for those who came after her.”

Scissum looks back on her career with pride, saying the opportunities she received were “almost unbelievable.”

“It was the Lord’s hand at work,” she said. “Working at NASA was a good experience, and I’m thankful for it.”

Throughout March, Alabama NewsCenter is recognizing Alabama women of distinction, past and present, in celebration of Women’s History Month.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)