Huntsville trailblazer Jeanette Scissum paved way for future generations

single-meta-cal February 26, 2021

Editor’s Note: This profile is the third and final story in a series on Huntsville’s hidden figures during Black History Month.

Jeanette Scissum, 81, still doesn’t know exactly what her father saw in her when he insisted she go to college from an early age.

Maybe it was because – like him – she was good at math. Perhaps it was her love of learning that made her stand out.

“My mom and dad did not have a high school education, but my dad was real good with numbers,” she said. “I think that may have started my love for math, at least partly. He was good at it and he saw that in me.”

‘We’ll find a way’

Scissum, born to a sharecropper and domestic worker in Marshall County, worked hard in school. The second-youngest of six children, she read everything she could and had high hopes for her future.

Then, in 10th grade, Scissum’s father fell ill and her mother became the primary breadwinner for the family.

“When I graduated (high school), I was one of the valedictorians,” Scissum said. “Mom said, ‘You’re still going to college,’ and I said, ‘How?'”

Jeanette Scissum

Jeanette Scissum served as both a mathematician and scientist at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

Her father, an Army veteran, was in a VA hospital in Tuskegee. With little money or resources to spare, Scissum had no idea how they would make it work.

“Mom said, ‘We’ll find a way,'” she said.

And they did. Armed with a small work scholarship, Scissum attended Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics. Later, she got her first job teaching science at Councill Training School.

Opportunity of a lifetime

After a couple of years as a teacher, Scissum had the opportunity to apply at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville.

She had applied for jobs there previously, and despite being told she was highly qualified, never got an offer.

In 1964, Scissum became an entry-level mathematician at MSFC, paving the way for a long, groundbreaking career with America’s top space agency.

“It was the opportunity of a lifetime for me and I thank God for it,” she said.

Today at NASA, we’re still looking to increase our representation and to fight for diversity and inclusion. I think Jeanette’s story still has a lot to tell us about what it is that we need to do as an agency.”

Scissum published a NASA report in 1967, “Survey of Solar Cycle Prediction Models,” which put forward techniques for improved forecasting of the sunspot cycle. She also co-wrote a computer program to determine the landing site for the Apollo lunar module.

In the mid-1970s, Scissum worked as a space scientist in the Space Environment Branch of Marshall’s Space Sciences Laboratory and later led activities in Marshall’s Atmospheric, Magnetospheric, and Plasmas in Space project.

Dr. Barbara Anthony, Scissum’s cousin and a retired educator at A&M, said Scissum’s story is an inspiration to many.

“Even though you might not see a way of doing it – going to college or reaching whatever goals – you just have to stick to it,” she said. “And there will always be people out there who will help you reach your goals.”

Equal opportunity

Scissum, a mother of four, went on to work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center outside Washington, D.C., and later, NASA Headquarters.

One of her most pivotal roles was as an equal employment opportunity officer at NASA. In 1975, Scissum wrote an article for the National Technical Association, “Equal Employment Opportunity and the Supervisor – A Counselor’s View,” which argued that many discrimination complaints could be avoided through adequate and meaningful communication.

Acting NASA Chief Historian Brian Odom called Scissum a “tireless crusader” who worked to resolve disputes and advocate for those without a voice.

“Today at NASA, we’re still looking to increase our representation and to fight for diversity and inclusion,” he said. “I think Jeanette’s story still has a lot to tell us about what it is that we need to do as an agency. The fact that someone like her can be such a role model is something Huntsville should be very proud of.”

Looking back on her life and career with NASA, Scissum said, “I sacrificed a lot, but I gained a lot, too.”

“I’m proud of the fact that I had parents who valued education and supported me,” she said. “I’m proud of the fact that there were people at A&M University who helped me along the way. … I don’t really know why I received so much support, but I’m so thankful for it.”


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