10 Black Americans Who Made Extraordinary Contributions to Space Exploration

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February is Black History Month and we are celebrating extraordinary Black professionals who have contributed to space exploration and helped us get to where we are today, many of whom have been left out of the history books. These individuals are leaders in their fields and have each made history and broken barriers for future generations to accomplish great things. Much of what we know about outer space would not be possible without them. They reached new heights with their achievements (quite literally!) and are an inspiration for young people around the world. Keep reading to learn about some amazing people.

Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker was a mathematician and the first Black astronomer in the United States. He was largely self-taught, borrowing books and lunar tables from his neighbors. With his knowledge of astronomy, he surveyed land in Washington D.C.. During the day, he would use a regulator clock to determine longitudes, and at night, he would make astronomical observations. In 1789, he forecast his first eclipse.

His Journey

Banneker was an avid writer. He wrote an almanac for farmers to both predict weather patterns and share personal opinions. One of his most well-known writing pieces was Benjamin Banneker’s Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris, for the Year of Our Lord 1792. In this piece, there were writings about the universe, fables, and an excerpt from an abolitionist essay.

His Legacy

During his time, people were too focused on Banneker’s race to celebrate his accomplishments. Banneker grew frustrated by this and worked to show that his skin color did not define his intellect. He spent time working with Thomas Jefferson in a way no Black person had before, breaking barriers for more Black men and women to be involved with academia.

 

Dorothy J. Vaughan

Photo Credit: NASA

Dorothy Vaughan

Dorothy Vaughan was a mathematician and “human computer” for NASA. She was the first Black person to supervise staff at West Area Computers. Vaughan spent 28 years in this position, teaching herself and the other women about machine computers and programming languages.

Her Journey

In 1929, Dorothy Vaughan graduated from Wilberforce University with her bachelor’s degree in mathematics. She attended the university on a full-tuition scholarship from the West Virginia Conference of the A.M.E. Sunday School Convention. After graduating, she went on to work as a high school math teacher to assist her family during the Great Depression.

Vaughan began working for the Langley Research Center, NASA’s oldest flight center, in 1943 as a mathematician and programmer. Most of her work was based on calculating flight paths and computer programming. It was within Langley that Vaughan was assigned to the West Area Computers unit, and she became acting head in 1949. West Computers was composed of entirely female, Black mathematicians. These women worked on space missions for the Space Race and made complex math calculations by hand.

One notable member of Vaughan’s group was Katherine Johnson. As machine computers advanced and became more popular, Vaughan taught herself, Johnson and the other women how to use them. Through her decades-long career, she dedicated herself to promoting Black women’s involvement in STEM fields and paved the way for more female opportunities at NASA.

Her Legacy

Dorothy Vaughn led the way for Black women to be involved with NASA’s missions. Throughout her career, she worked to promote STEM education – teaching the other women all about computer programming when she could – and empower women to pursue their passion for science and technology. Today, much involvement of Black Americans and women in STEM is thanks to her.

 

Mary Jackson

Photo Credit: NASA Langley Research Center

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson was a mathematician and aerospace engineer for both the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and NASA. She worked under Dorothy Vaughn at West Area Computers before going on to become NASA’s first Black female engineer. Just last year, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine shared that NASA’s headquarters would be named Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters, in her honor.

Her Journey

Jackson first worked as a research mathematician at Langley Research Center. After taking graduate courses in mathematics and physics, she was promoted to the position of aerospace engineer in 1958. As an engineer, Jackson researched airflow, thrust and drag forces, and wind tunnels. She worked in the High-Speed Aerodynamics Division, the Subsonic-Transonic Aerodynamics Division. Compressibility Research Division, and Full-Scale Research Division, and authored or co-authored 12 papers.

After 34 years of work, Jackson earned the most senior engineering title available. Following this accomplishment, she accepted a demotion to be a manager of both NASA’s Federal Women’s Program and Affirmative Action Program. In this position, she worked on hiring women and minorities in STEM fields.

Her Legacy

As NASA’s first female, Black engineer, Mary Jackson showed young Black women everywhere that they too could pursue their dreams. Her work in NASA’s Federal Women’s Program and Affirmative Action Program brought more women and minorities to NASA and other STEM programs, destroying stereotypes in the process.

 

Katherine Johnson

Photo Credit: NASA

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was a mathematician and one of the first Black women to work at NASA as a scientist. Her calculations were essential to some of the first human spaceflights. She calculated the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepherd – the first American to go to space – and verified electronic calculations of John Glenn’s orbit around Earth. She also worked on the Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 missions.

Her Journey

Katherine Johnson broke countless barriers for Black women in STEM. In 1937, she graduated from West Virginia State University with degrees in mathematics and French – at only 18 years old! Professors had to add new math courses for her, as she took every math class offered. Johnson went on to attend graduate school at West Virginia University, the first Black woman to do so.

At the start of her NASA career, Johnson worked as a “human computer,” performing long calculations by hand before electronic computers were available. She and the Black women in her computing group were required to work separate from their white peers in an office labeled “Colored Computers.”

When talking about the adversity she faced, Johnson said, “We needed to be assertive as women in those days – assertive and aggressive – and the degree to which we had to be that way depended on where you were. I had to be.”

Despite racial segregation laws, NASA missions wouldn’t fly without Johnson. In fact, John Glenn refused to fly unless Johnson herself verified the calculations for his orbit. Even today, her work continues to influence spaceflight. Before her death, Johnson worked on plans for future Mars missions.

Her Legacy

Johnson passed away on February 24, 2020, but her legacy still lives on. Two NASA facilities have been named after her: the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in Hampton, Virginia, and the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility in Fairmont, West Virginia. Following her death, a satellite named “Katherine” was launched in her honor, and this month, Northrop Grumman named their spacecraft “SS Katherine Johnson” after her.

Harvey Washington Banks

In 1961, Harvey Washington Banks graduated from George Washington University and the first Black person to receive a Ph.D. degree in astronomy. Before earning his doctorate, Banks earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from Howard University. He went on to teach at Delaware State College and Howard University.

His Journey

Banks spent his career researching orbits, celestial mechanics, solar eclipse, and satellites. He focused on spectroscopy, which uses light to study celestial bodies, and geodesy, which is the study of Earth’s shape and orientation. His work in geodesy, in particular, has influenced today’s Global Positioning System (GPS) technology.

His Legacy

Much of our understanding of the Earth’s orientation and GPS technology would not be possible without Harvey Washington Banks. He broke barriers for Black people looking to be involved in academia and demonstrated that his intellect was not defined by the color of his skin.

 

Robert Lawrence

Photo Credit: US Air Force

Robert Henry Lawrence Jr.

Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was an Air Force Officer and made history as the first Black astronaut in June of 1967. His contributions to space exploration have inspired generations of Black men and women. While his career was brief, Lawrence earned both the Air Force Commendation Medal and the Outstanding Unit Citation.

His Journey

When he was 21 years old, Lawrence became a US Air Force pilot. He went on to earn the position of senior USAF pilot and flew test flights to study the gliding flight of spacecraft returning to Earth from orbit. He logged over 2,500 flight hours during his service. During this time in the Air Force, Lawrence also earned his Ph.D. from Ohio State University in physical chemistry.

Lawrence was chosen to be an astronaut in 1967 after the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School. He was selected to be a part of the Air Force’s Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) program, an early concept of crewed space stations. However, Lawrence never got to go to space. He was killed in a plane crash later that year, at only 32 years old.

His Legacy

While Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. never got to go to space himself, he paved the way for other Black people to do so. His selection as an astronaut made history, and he inspired others to follow in his lead and accomplish their dreams. He didn’t let the adversity he faced hold him back. He was determined to reach new heights, and along the way, he inspired generations to come.

 

Guion Bluford

Photo Credit: NASA

Guion Bluford

Guion Bluford made history in 1983 as the first Black person to go to space as part of the STS-8 mission. During this mission, he also became the second person of African ancestry to fly in space, the first being cosmonaut Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez.

His Journey

Before his NASA career, Bluford was a member of the United States Air Force and has logged over 5,000 hours of jet flight time. He received his pilot wings in 1966 and trained as a fighter pilot. In the Vietnam War, he flew over 125 combat missions. Bluford went on to graduate from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1978 with a doctorate in aerospace engineering.

Bluford was a part of NASA astronaut group 8. He flew as a Mission Specialist on four space missions: STS-8, STS-61-A, STS-39, and STS-53. The missions STS-8 and STS-61-A each made history, respectively. STS-8 was the first mission to launch and land at night, and STS-61-A was the first mission to carry eight crew members, the largest crew to have flown in space at the time.

In total, Bluford spent 28 days, 16 hours, and 33 minutes in space. During this time, he conducted dozens of tests and experiments, including researching the physiological effects of space flight and collecting data on Earth’s aurora. He also helped deploy the Global Low Orbiting Message Relay Satellite and operate the Continuous Flow Electrophoresis System.

His Legacy

Guion Bluford broke down barriers for Black people dreaming of being involved with space exploration. He paved the way for Black men and women to reach for their stars and accomplish their goals. When talking about his history-making mission, he said, “I wanted to set the standard, do the best job possible so that other people would be comfortable with African-Americans flying in space and African-Americans would be proud of being participants in the space program and… encourage others to do the same.” Rest assured, he did just that!

 

Dr. Mae Jemison

Photo Credit: NASA

Mae C Jemison

In 1992, Mae C. Jemison made history as the first Black woman to fly in space. She was a part of the mission STS-47, where she served as Mission Specialist 4 and Science Mission Specialist. Jemison spent eight days in space, where she conducted numerous experiments, most notably researching bone cells.

Her Journey

Jemison knew she wanted to go to space at a young age. NASA’s Apollo-era fueled her passion. As she watched the Apollo missions unfold from home, she was frustrated by the lack of female astronauts. This irritation drove her to want to make her mark on history and become an astronaut herself.

In 1977, Jemison graduated from Stanford University with degrees in chemical engineering and African and African-American studies. She then enrolled in Cornell Medical School, where she worked for the Flying Doctors before graduating with her M.D. degree in 1981. She worked as a medical officer for the Peace Corps and conducted research with the Centers for Disease Control before applying to be an astronaut.

Her Legacy

While Jemison only flew on one space mission, her advocacy to promote STEM education has never ended. She founded The Jemison Group, Inc., which investigates the socio-cultural impact of technological advancements, and the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, which creates educational programs. One program is The Earth We Share, a science camp for students to improve science education and problem-solving skills.

Today, Jemison is a member of the Association of Space Explorers, the American Medical Association, and the American Chemical Society. She continues to be an active public speaker, sharing her story and inspiring others to reach for their stars.

 

Bernard Harris

Photo Credit: NASA

Bernard A. Harris

Bernard A. Harris is a former NASA astronaut who made history as the first Black person to perform a spacewalk. His dream of becoming an astronaut began in 1969 when he watched the Apollo 11 astronauts land on the Moon for the first time. Over twenty years later, in 1990, that dream came true when NASA selected him to become an astronaut.

His Journey

Harris first flew as a Mission Specialist on STS-55 in August of 1991. For ten days, he conducted experiments aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. Four years later, in 1995, Harris was a part of STS-63 as a Payload Commander. STS-63 was the first flight of the joint Russian-American space program. It was during this mission that Harris became the first Black person to perform a spacewalk. He did so alongside Michael Foale, the first British-born spacewalker.

Harris also worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center as a clinical scientist and flight surgeon. He graduated from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine in 1982 with his M.D. degree. During this time, he studied how the human body adapts to outer space.

His Legacy

In 1998, Harris founded The Harris Foundation, which offers support to programs dedicated to supporting the health and education of minority groups and empowering young people to follow their dream. Harris is currently the CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit organization that promotes accessible STEM education.

 

Stephanie Wilson

Photo Credit: NASA

Stephanie Wilson

Stephanie Wilson is an aerospace engineer and NASA astronaut. She was the second Black woman to go to space and has spent the longest in space of any Black female astronaut, logging over 42 days in space. She has flown on three missions: STS-121, STS-120, STS-131.

Her Journey

Before going to space, Wilson worked in the Astronaut Office Space Station Operations Branch and as a communicator for on-orbit crews in Mission Control. In the Astronaut Office Space Station Operations Branch, she worked on Space Station displays and procedures and Space Shuttle engines, tanks, and boosters.

On her first mission, STS-121, Wilson helped transfer over 20,000 pounds of equipment to the International Space Station. She also developed increased safety procedures for space shuttle operations, produced high-resolution images of the Shuttle, and assisted in robotic arm operations.

A year later, Wilson helped deliver Harmony, a utility hub, to the International Space Station as part of STS-120. This mission also brought a new crew member to the ISS for Expedition 16 and brought a member of Expedition 15 and a member of Expedition 16 home.

On her final mission, Wilson was responsible for space station robotics. She operated the space station’s robotic arm to both remove and reinstall the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module. STS-131 was also the first time four women were in space at the same time.

In 2020, it was announced that Stephanie Wilson was a part of NASA’s new Artemis Team. This group is composed of 18 individuals headed back to the Moon. Wilson is one of nine women on the team, one of which will be the first woman to step foot on the Moon. Also a part of this group are Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, who completed the first all-female spacewalk together in 2019. Wilson was a ground controller for this spacewalk.

Her Legacy

Stephanie Wilson continues to break barriers. As the second Black woman to go to space, she has led the way for other Black women to follow in her footsteps and reach new heights. On the Artemis Team, she will continue to do so, and we look forward to seeing what she will accomplish!

 

Charles Bolden

Photo Credit: Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Charles Bolden

Charles Bolden made history in 2009 as the first Black person to serve as NASA administrator on a permanent basis. Before becoming an administrator, Bolden was a NASA astronaut and member of the United States Marine Corps.

His Journey

After graduating from the United States Naval Academy in 1968, Bolden earned the position of Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps and was designated a Naval Aviator in 1970. He flew in the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Thunder and throughout his service, accumulated over 6,000 hours of flight time.

Bolden was selected to become an astronaut in 1981 as part of NASA Astronaut Group 9. He flew on four space missions: STS-61-C, STS-31, STS-45, and STS-60. On STS-61-C and STS-31, he served as the mission pilot, and on STS-45 and STS-60, he was the mission commander. While completing these missions, Bolden became the first person to ride the Launch Complex 39 slide wire baskets, which were used as an escape from the Space Shuttle. Also on these missions, Bolden and his other crew members helped deploy the SATCOM Ku band satellite and the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as conduct various tests and experiments.

Bolden was appointed to be the administrator of NASA in 2009 by then-President Barack Obama. His goals were to promote STEM education, empower young people to get involved with space exploration, and expand international relationships, specifically with the Muslim world. He also focused on developing missions to Mars, and in 2012, he became the first human to have his voice broadcast on the Red Planet.

His Legacy

Charles Bolden’s time as NASA administrator left a lasting impact on NASA. Today, we are still going after Mars. This month, NASA’s Perseverance rover will touch down on the Red Planet and hopefully one day soon, humans will touch down as well. His service as administrator also was historic for Black people looking to be involved in space exploration, and he opened new doors for anyone dreaming of doing so.

 

Victor Glover

Photo Credit: NASA

Victor J Glover

Last year, Victor J Glover made history when he became the first Black crew member of an ISS Expedition to live on the International Space Station long term. On November 15, 2020, Glover flew onboard the first operational flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. This was his first mission, and he is currently living on the ISS as a station systems flight engineer for Expeditions 64 and 65. He is one of only 14 Black Americans who have gone to space.

His Journey

Before becoming an astronaut, Glover served time in the United States Navy., earning the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He joined in 2001, and, in 2007, he was designated as a test pilot. As a Naval Aviator, he has been deployed throughout the United States and Japan. He has logged over 3,000 hours of flight time and served in 24 combat missions.

Glover holds three Master of Science degrees: Masters of Flight Test Engineering from Air University, Masters of Systems Engineering from Naval Postgraduate School, and Masters of Military Operational Art and Sciences from Air University. He also earned certificates in Space Systems and Legislative studies.

His Legacy

Victor J Glover’s legacy has only just begun. As private and commercial spaceflight become more popular, we will look back to the first operational flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and celebrate Glover and the other astronauts’ historical accomplishments. He is also breaking limits each day he spends onboard the ISS. Glover is an inspiration for the new wave of aspiring astronauts, and he’ll continue to accomplish great things on future missions.

Everlasting Legacy

The accomplishments of these Black engineers, scientists, astronauts, and mathematicians have broken barriers so that new generations of Black men and women can too follow their dreams. They are leaders in their fields and are role models for young people wanting to get involved in STEM. Their stories of perseverance and success are inspiring, and their legacy should never be forgotten.

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