By Donna Loughlin
Pamela Greyer remembers the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. She also remembers the days that followed as she watched her neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago get overrun with rioters and demonstrators and, later, police and the National Guard.
What she didn’t realize at the time was that hundreds of miles away in Langley, Virginia, a different — and quieter — revolution was happening. A team of young Black scientists led by Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson was playing a major role in getting the first American astronauts into space. Jackson was NASA’s first Black, female engineer and, along with Johnson and their now-famous team of “Hidden Figures,” had become an integral part of the United States space program.
But Greyer had no idea they existed.
“No one was talking about them,” Greyer told me when we chatted for the latest episode of Before IT Happened. “All these stories had been kept for years and never came out. We needed them. Especially young African-American girls — to show them that they don’t have to be afraid of math. They don’t have to be afraid of science. There’s a whole lot of beauty in it. That’s where we’ve always missed the mark.”
Professionally, Greyer is known as “The NASA Lady” — though she is neither an astronaut nor an engineer. Greyer, who still lives in Chicago, has dedicated more than three decades to making STEM education accessible to young students of color, particularly girls. And she’s done it largely by teaching her students about space. Her mission is to give her students and the many others she mentors and advises through NASA’s network of educators access to the kind of science and math education that can make them the next Mary Jackson.
Greyer’s gateway into STEM was her interest in personal computers. Prior to teaching, she had worked as a successful freelance copywriter and was among the first people she knew to get connected to the internet. She started submitting her writing work electronically to her clients and started experimenting with web design. Years later, that early exposure to computer technology led to opportunities to dig deeper into other areas of science.
Soon she started leading a computer program at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s digital media center. That opportunity got her noticed by the head of education outreach at Wisconsin’s Yerkes Observatory, which was operated by the University of Chicago. When NASA approved a grant application to launch a Saturday academy for space science for Chicago high school students, Greyer was the first choice to lead it.
“At first it was, ‘You know, you’re a teacher. Why don’t you come in and lead this program and teach kids how to use the internet?’” Greyer told me. You never know where these things are going to lead you.”
Today, Greyer is still in the classroom but also helps lead a network of NASA Solar System ambassadors, organizing educational events and programs around NASA missions and other space exploration themes. She estimates she’s watched “hundreds” of young students in her native Chicago participate in her programs and go on to pursue STEM careers — something in which she takes immeasurable pride.
“When we look at Black and brown women and men pursuing these careers, they’re able to open the door and create a pathway for other young people to come in and follow them,” she told me. “So if I have a legacy, that’s what I want it to be.”