WASHINGTON, D.C.—Willis Jenkins was only 7 years old when he conducted his first electrical experiments. The curiosity he displayed at a young age—using car batteries to power his bedroom, for instance—had caused his mother to make a bold proclamation.
“You know, you’re going to be the first one up there,” she’d say, pointing toward the moon, which in the 1960s was still wholly uncharted.
Jenkins never made it to the moon, but the Northeastern graduate has led a successful career spanning more than two decades at National Aeronautics and Space Administration, first at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, then at the headquarters in Washington, D.C.
After earning a degree in electrical engineering from Northeastern—which he attended with his now-wife Tina Frizzell-Jenkins, who received her degree in mechanical engineering—he began his career at E-Systems in Virginia. The company, which later became Raytheon Corp., is where both he and his wife completed their co-ops as students at Northeastern.
“The cooperative education makes classroom instruction come to life, and deepened my understanding of electrical engineering,” he says.
Jenkins continued working in the private sector in various capacities, including as an electrical systems manager, a production test engineer, and developer of software for mainframe computers.
Since 2003, he has overseen the Explorer Program at NASA, one of the agency’s oldest initiatives focusing on scientific investigations from space. But Jenkins says one of his proudest accomplishments was helping to design a $1 coin celebrating the contributions of American Indians to the space program.
The 2019 commemorative coin features Mary Golda Ross, believed to be the first Native American woman to work as an engineer, on the reverse side. The obverse retains the rendition of Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who was an interpreter on the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Ross, who died in 2008 at 99, was of Cherokee descent and worked for Lockheed Corp., where she was one of the 40 founding engineers of the renowned and highly secretive Skunk Works project.
“She was the only female and Native American within the Skunks group,” Jenkins says. “I tend to call her the ‘hidden figure’ of Native Americans, like Katherine Johnson was for African Americans.”
Jenkins was tasked with figuring out a mathematical equation that would best represent Ross’ background as a mathematician and space pioneer. The more he learned about her trailblazing path and historical contributions, the more he felt a connection with Ross, partly because of his own family history. Jenkins, too, has Native American ancestry—especially on his father’s side.
“My father always told of his Cherokee descent and I had been doing a lot of research on my own family tree,” Jenkins says. “I’ve got several generations but [it’s difficult] to pinpoint and say, ‘That person was Cherokee,’ knowing the history of the Cherokee nation, the Trail of Tears, and what happened to the Cherokee losing their heritage.”
The equation depicted on the coin is a combination of different formulas Ross used to send a rocket to space. It is the formula for escape velocity, the minimum velocity an object must have in order to escape the gravitational field of the Earth—in other words, escape the Earth without ever falling back.
Pinning down the formula was not easy, and required Jenkins to work long hours solving different equations with the aid of only a calculator. Nevertheless, it was an improvement over the slide rule, a mechanical analog computer that Ross used in the 50s and 60s. Jenkins said that it was important for him to recreate her process, and thus “walk in her shoes” by calculating the formula himself.
“The formula that’s on the coin now, as I put it in layman’s terms, gives you the energy that you need to utilize to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and be able to go to a planet,” Jenkins says.
Jenkins views his work on the coin as one of the greatest accomplishments of his career. He takes pride in knowing that because it is both currency as well as a collector’s item, the coin will long outlive him.
“I wouldn’t have ever imagined, even when I was younger, to have been involved and worked on a coin that I can turn around and say, ‘This is my legacy,’” he says. “It might not have my initials on it, but I have a formula and a story to go with it.”
Khalida Sarwari contributed to this report from Boston. For media inquiries, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.