Soaring Above the Setbacks:
African-Americans in Space
By Jim Lovell
Whenever I pass through St. Louis, I always take a moment to admire
the great Spencer Taylor mural at Lambert Field that celebrates the contributions
of African-Americans to aerospace.
Many of the people I meet -- especially people of color -- think the
space program is the exclusive domain of white, middle-aged men with crew
cuts. But the reality is that African-Americans have played an active
and important part in space exploration since the very beginnings of the
In addition to the 14 African-American astronauts, there have been countless
more scientists, mathematicians, physicists, astronomers, doctors and
engineers who have made significant scientific, engineering and medical
Take for example, Robert Shurney. A physicist from Tennessee State University,
it was Dr. Shurney who designed the tires for the moon buggy used during
the Apollo 15 mission in 1972. His ingenious design used wire mesh in
the place of rubber to save weight yet still provide the needed flexibility.
Dr. Vance Marchbanks, a heart surgeon and medical specialist for NASA,
helped develop ways to monitor astronauts' vital signs during space flight.
It was Dr. Marchbanks who was responsible for John Glenn's health during
America's first orbital flight.
George Carruthers, an astronautical engineer, built the camera that
was carried to the moon on Apollo 16. He also designed and built a combination
telescope and camera used on the shuttle missions. Some of the most enduring
images from space were made us ing Dr. Carruthers' cameras.
Christine Darden, a mathematician and mechanical engineer, has been
with NASA since 1966. Dr. Darden is a recognized leader in the reduction
of shock waves from spacecraft wings and nose cones.
Patricia Cowings, a psychologist
from the University of California, has been conducting NASA space flight
research for more than 20 years. Dr. Cowings was instrumental in developing
ways astronauts could use biofeedback to reduce space sickness and headaches
Meanwhile, African-American astronauts have played important roles and
even led some of the most demanding and dangerous space missions. Guion
Bluford, a former Air Force pilot and first African-American in space,
logged 688 hours over four space shuttle missions, beginning with his
first flight in 1983.
He was followed by Frederick Gregory, another Air Force pilot, and graduate
of the Air Force Academy, who made his first space flight in 1985. Gregory
went on to command Space Shuttle Discovery in 1989 and served as mission
commander of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 1991.
Charles Bolden, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Major General
in the Marine Corps, logged two space shuttle missions in 1986 and 1990
before serving as mission commander on Atlantis in 1992 and Discovery
Mae Jemison was the first
African-American woman in space. During an eight-day mission on Endeavor
in 1992, she conducted space-sickness experiments and conducted research
on bone loss in zero gravity. In addition to a B.S. in chemistry and a
degree in medicine, Dr. Jemison also holds a degree in African-American
Harris, flight surgeon on the Columbia in 1993, was the first African-American
to walk in space during his flight on the Discovery in 1995. During that
same mission, Harris conducted experiments on the Russian MIR spacecraft
after a linkup in orbit.
Astronauts merit special attention because, in addition to bringing
a special set of skills, they're also willing to risk their lives. Two
of America's astronauts of African decent have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Ronald McNair, a much-loved physicist from New York, was aboard the 1986
Challenger Mission that exploded above Cape Canaveral. The other was Maj.
Robert J. Lawrence, who was killed in a crash during a training mission
in 1967. Both were highly respected by their peers. Both believed in the
Sadly, most young people would not recognize any of these names. For
these African-Americans to achieve their position within the space program
required extraordinary courage and perseverance. They often had to work
harder and longer to soar over the set backs.
Soaring Above Setbacks was the name of a recent exhibit at Anne Arundel
Community College in Maryland currated by Jim Jackson, the college's coordinator
of multiethnic recruitment, a graduate of Annapolis, a licensed pilot
and a space program historian. The exhibit chronicles the extraordinary
accomplishments of people like Shurney, Darden and Jemison and the setbacks
they had to endure.
While many would consider them exclusive, Jackson notes there are many
interesting parallels between the civil rights movement and the space
program. In 1957, while the nation was torn by the integration of the
Little Rock schools, the country was also galvanized by the launch of
Sputnik. In 1962, while the Freedom Riders were registering voters in
the South, John Glenn bound us all by orbiting the earth. And, at the
end of the 1960s, Americans walked on the moon while also mourning the
loss of Martin Luther King.
"It's important to remember that, throughout the entire civil rights
movement, there were African-Americans also involved in the space program,"
notes Jackson. "Blacks have always participated in the nation's progress.
Black scientists, engineers and astronauts understood how important it
was for African-Americans to be at the forefront of a national scientific
and technological endeavor."
Jackson hopes Soaring Above Setbacks will inspire young African-Americans,
"We're in the era of technology. The ultimate expression of technology
is the space program. My goal is to prove to young African-Americans that
they, too, can participate and be leaders in one of the greatest adventures
of all time."
Jim Lovell, commander of the Apollo 13 lunar mission, is the Founding
Chairman of the Space Awareness Alliance's Advisory Board. The Alliance's
public awareness campaign encourages Americans to learn about the many
life-enhancing benefits brought to us from space. Readers may post electronic-mail
messages for Mr. Lovell at www.SpaceConnection.org on the World
Wide Web, or may write to Mr. Lovell at 2860 South Circle Drive, Suite
2301, Colorado Springs, CO, 80906.