Continuing our celebration of Black History Month, we are launching into space with aspirational Black pioneers in STEM.
Despite facing racial and gender adversities during the segregated period of the 1960s and beyond, several men and women broke Guinness World Records titles and color barriers in the realm of space and rocket science.
Below, we’re honoring the Black space men and women that went on to become the first African-American astronauts to travel into space, the first African-American to space walk and the first African-American engineer at NASA.
Mae Jemison: First African-American astronaut to travel into space (female)
Born on 17 October 1956 in Decatur, Alabama, Mae Jemison had an ambition to pursue a career in science. She diligently studied and explored all aspects of science, especially astronomy, in school.
Later, Mae was selected out of 2,000 applicants to join NASA’s Astronaut Group 12. This group consisted of trained crew members that were responsible for carrying out U.S. and international space missions in 1987. They were also the first group to fly in space after the historic Challenger explosion of 1986.
By joining this class of space engineers, Mae had officially made her mark by becoming the first African American woman to be recruited into the NASA astronaut training program.
After a year of astronaut training, Mae was assigned to be a science mission specialist on the Endeavor mission STS-47, along with six other astronauts. Because of her background in medicine and biology, Mae’s role consisted of life science experiments for bone cell research experiment while in orbit. It was during this mission that she became the first African-American astronaut to travel into space (female). She logged a total of 190 hours, 30 minutes and 23 seconds in space before returning to Earth just eight days after the mission began. The team of 7 made a total of 127 orbits around Earth and returned to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After having a six-year career as an astronaut, Jemison eventually left NASA to start her own consulting company called The Jemison Group, which focused on improving health care initiatives within developing countries. She also developed an international space camp for tweens, called The Earth We Share (TEWS), which serves to educate and demonstrate the impacts of science, mathematics and technology on society.
Mary W. Jackson: The first African-American engineer at NASA (female)
Born with a gift for math and calculations, Mary W. Jackson is known today for helping the first Americans launch into space.
As a mathematician and aerospace engineer, Mary W. Jackson she became the world’s first African-American NASA engineer (female).
Originally from Hampton, Virginia, U.S., Mary graduated from the Hampton Institute in 1942 with a dual bachelor's degrees in mathematics and physical science. She worked as an U.S. Army secretary before she was introduced to National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).
In 1951, Mary was recruited by NACA and started her career as a research mathematician, at the Langley Research Center. It wasn’t long before her prolific performance led her to a transfer to NASA, placing her under fellow “Hidden Figure” Dorothy Vaughan in the segregated West Area Computing Unit. She soon became known as one of the “human computers” at Langley for her brilliant work ethic, mathematical skills, and ideas.
In 1953, she accepted a position to work under engineer, Kazimierz Czarnecki in the 4-foot by 4-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a 60,000-horsepower wind tunnel that was used for experimenting aerodynamic models with powerful winds. Kazimierz encouraged Mary to pursue a graduate-level training program in mathematics and physics so that she could qualify for a promotion from a research mathematician to an engineer. These mathematics and physics courses were offered at a segregated all-white night program by the University of Virginia, at the Hampton High School. Jackson had to petition the City of Hampton to grant her access to join the program. After her petition was approved and she completed her courses, she was soon promoted to the role of an aerospace engineer in 1958 and became the first African-American engineer at NASA (female).
Throughout her career, she worked in the following NASA divisions: The Compressibility Research Division, Full-Scale Research Division, High-Speed Aerodynamics Division and the Subsonic-Transonic Aerodynamics Division.
During her time at NACA and NASA, she authored and co-authored 12 technical papers, helped women and other minorities advance their careers, and by 1979, she achieved the most senior title within the engineering department. Mary eventually retired from NASA in 1985.
Her work on NASA’s Project Mercury during the Space Race would be later featured in the 2016 film Hidden Figures, and Mary would be portrayed by award-winning actress, Janelle Monáe.
On 11 February 2005, Mary passed away at the age of 83. However, her incredible work continues to be recognized and celebrated by the scientific community.
Guion Stewart Bluford Jr.: The first African-American astronaut to travel into space (male)
Air Force pilot instructor and flight commander, Guion Stewart Bluford Jr. joined NASA’s Space program, selected from the 10,000-applicant pool. It became particularly significant as this led to Guion’s history-making journey as the first African-Americanastronaut to travel in space (male).
Born 22 November 1942, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Guion Stewart Bluford, Jr. got his start as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force. While studying, he earned degrees in aerospace engineering, laser physics, as well as business administration.
Before he was accepted into NASA’s Space program, he served in the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam and flew 144 combat missions, an experience which would contribute to his abilities in space engineering.
During his time in the Air Force, he wrote a handful of scientific papers regarding computational fluid dynamics. He accumulated over 5,100 hours jet flight time, including 1,300 hours as a T-38 instructor pilot.
His training and former flight experience made him an ideal candidate to join the NASA Astronaut Group 8 in 1978. Guion trained to become an astronaut for one year, before receiving the official position in August 1979. As an astronaut, he operated technical space station tasks such as the operation of the Remote Manipulator System (RMS), Spacelab systems and experiments and oversight of the space shuttle systems. His first journey into space was aboard the STS-8 as a mission specialist, an astronaut responsible for coordinating all on board operations. By 1983, Guion Bluford became the first African-American astronaut to travel into space (male) aboard the STS-8. From 1983 to 1992, Guion participated in a total of four space shuttle flights throughout his career as an astronaut. At the end of his fourth flight, he logged over 688 total hours in space.
Bluford eventually left NASA and retired from the Air Force. He later accepted a new post as the Vice President/General Manager, Engineering Services Division of New York Military Academy (NYMA).
Now, Bluford’s historic achievements are properly honored in the International Space Hall of Fame, the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame, and the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Bernard Anthony Harris Jr.: The first African-American to spacewalk (male)
Inspired by the historic moon landing of the Apollo 11 mission on TV in 1969, then 13-year-old Bernard Anthony Harris Jr. knew what he wanted to do when he got older, and it involved becoming an astronaut.
He trained as a flight surgeon at the Aerospace School of Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base in 1988 and received a master's degree in biomedical science from The University of Texas Medical Branch in 1996.
After being selected from several applicants in January 1990, Bernard became an astronaut in July 1991 as a mission specialist on Space Shuttle flight crews due to his diverse background in biology and medicine.
He flew on the Columbia for ten days, (26 April 1993 – 6 May 1993). During the mission, Bernard was part of the Spacelab D-2payload crew, whose role was to conduct a variety of physical and life sciences research. During this flight, Harris logged over 239 hours and 4,164,183 miles in space.
His role on his second flight mission on STS-63 was the Payload Commander on the Discovery. It was the first flight of the Russian-American Space Program. He and fellow astronaut Michael Foale ‘s mission was to deploy and retrieve the free-flying payload, Spartan 204. On 9 February 1995, their spacewalk, or extravehicular activity (EVA), lasted a total of 4 hours and 38 minutes. During this activity , Bernard’s steps made history as the first African-American to spacewalk (male).
In total, Harris logged a total of 198 hours, 29 minutes in space on his second mission; and completed 129 orbits and traveled over 2.9 million miles.
Bernard left NASA the following year after his second shuttle mission in April 1996 and has since dedicated his experience as an astronaut to inspiring and encouraging younger generations to pursue careers in STEM.
Photo credit: NASA Asset Database