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Celebrating Black History Month: NASA’s African-American Astronauts

NASA Astronaut Stephanie Wilson. Photo Credit: NASA

February is Black History Month, or National African-American History Month, and here at AmericaSpace we are celebrating the achievements of African-American astronauts in the United States Space Program. From Guion “Guy” Bluford to Ronald McNair, these courageous Americans made significant contributions to human space exploration. Read on for a short piece on each of these heroes.

Robert Lawrence. Photo Credit: Hill AFB

Major Robert Lawrence was the first African-American selected for astronaut training by NASA. He was selected to be an astronaut in a proposed Air Force space program called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory.  In 1967, Major Lawrence was tragically killed in a plane crash during a training mission and did not get the opportunity to fly in space.

Guion "Guy" Bluford. Photo Credit: NASA

The first African-American in space was Philadelphia native and United States Air Force Colonel, Guion “Guy” Bluford, Jr. Bluford received his bachelor of science degree in aerospace engineering from the Pennsylvania State University in 1964, a master of science degree with distinction in aerospace engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1974, and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering with a minor in laser physics from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1978. Dr. Bluford also earned a master of business administration from the University of Houston, Clear Lake in 1987. As a member of the United States Air Force, Bluford earned his pilot wings in 1966. He became a NASA astronaut in 1979 and completed four space flights (STS-8, STS 61-A, STS-39, and STS-53) as a mission specialist, logging over 688 hours in space according to his NASA biography.

Ronald McNair. Photo Credit: NASA

Dr. Ronald McNair, born in Lake City, South Carolina, was the second African-American to orbit the Earth. Dr. McNair earned a bachelor of science degree in physics from North Carolina A&T State University in 1971 and a Ph.D. in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976. McNair was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in January 1978. On his first mission he acted as a mission specialist on STS 41-B in 1984. This mission marked the first flight of the Manned Maneuvering Unit and the first use of the Canadian arm, which was operated by McNair, to position EVA crewman around the Challenger payload bay. For his second mission, Dr. McNair was assigned to act as a mission specialist on STS 51-L. Sadly, on January 28, 1986, Dr. McNair was killed along with six other crew members when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch from the Kennedy Space Center. McNair was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. Today, the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program assists first-generation college students with financial need or members of a group that is traditionally underrepresented in graduate education and have demonstrated strong academic potential.  According to its website, the program is designed to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies through research involvement, and the program goal is to increase graduate degree awards for students from underrepresented segments of society.

Fredrick Gregory. Photo Credit: NASA

Fredrick Gregory was the first African-American to pilot and command a Space Shuttle mission. He earned a bachelor of science degree from the United States Air Force Academy in 1964 and a master’s degree in information systems from George Washington University in 1977. Gregory was trained as a pilot in the United States Air Force, logging over 6,976 hours flying in over 50 types of aircraft including 550 combat missions in Vietnam according to his NASA biography. Gregory was selected as an astronaut in 1978, and flew on STS-51-B, STS-33, and STS-44. Gregory later served as Associate Administrator for the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (1992-2001), Associate Administrator for the Office of Space Flight (2001-2002), and NASA Deputy Administrator (2002-2005).

Charles Bolden. Photo Credit: NASA

Charles F. Bolden, Jr. earned a bachelor of science degree in electrical science in 1968 from the United States Naval Academy and was commissioned as second lieutenant in the Marine Corps according to his NASA biography. He completed flight training in 1970 and became a naval aviator, flying over 100 combat missions between 1972-1973. Bolden was selected as an Astronaut Candidate by NASA in 1980 and flew on four missions (STS-61-C, STS-31, STS-45, and STS-60). Bolden was nominated as Administrator of NASA by President Barack Obama, and on July 17, 2009 became the twelfth person to hold that position. Bolden is currently serving in that position.

Mae Jemison. Photo Credit: NASA

Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to fly in space. Jemison earned a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering (and fulfilled the requirements for a B.A. in African and Afro-American Studies) from Stanford University in 1977, and a doctorate degree in medicine from Cornell University in 1981. Dr. Jemison has experience in both engineering and medical research. She completed her internship at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center in 1982 and worked as a General Practitioner with INA/Ross Loos Medical Group in Los Angeles. Dr. Jemison was selected into the astronaut program in 1987 and was the mission specialist on STS-47 where she logged over 190 hours in space.

Bernard Harris. Photo Credit: NASA

Bernard A. Harris, Jr. was the first African-American to walk in space. This Temple, Texas, native earned a bachelor of science degree in biology from the University of Houston in 1978 and a doctorate in medicine from Texas Tech University School of Medicine in 1982. Dr. Harris completed a residency in internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic in 1985 and trained as a flight surgeon at the Aerospace School of Medicine, Brooks Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas in 1988. Dr. Harris also earned a master’s degree in biomedical science from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in 1996, according to his NASA biography. Dr. Harris was selected by NASA for the astronaut class of 1990 and flew as a mission specialist on STS-55 and was the Payload Commander on STS-63.

Winston Scott. Photo Credit: NASA

Captain Winston E. Scott received a bachelor of arts degree in music from Florida State University in 1972 and a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in 1980. Scott entered Naval Aviation Officer Candidate School following his graduation from Florida State in 1972. He accumulated over 5,000 hours of flight time in 20 different military and civilian aircraft. He was selected by NASA in March 1992 and served as a mission specialist on STS-72 and STS-87 where he completed an EVA on each flight. He later retired from NASA to serve as Vice President for Student Affairs at Florida State University. He also wrote a book entitled, “Reflections From Earth Orbit” in 2005.

 

Robert Curbeam. Photo Credit: NASA

Captain Robert Curbeam is a veteran of seven spacewalks during his three space shuttle flights. Curbeam is from Baltimore, Maryland, and he earned his bachelor of science degree in aerospace engineering from the United States Naval Academy in 1984. He went on to earn a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1990 and a degree of aeronautical and astronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1991. He was selected as an astronaut by NASA in December 1994 and went on to fly three Space Shuttle missions – STS-85, STS-98, and STS-116 – where he logged over 901 hours in space.

Michael Anderson. Photo Credit: NASA

Lieutenant Colonel Michael Anderson earned a bachelor of science degree in physics/astronomy from the University of Washington in 1981 and a master of science degree in physics from Creighton University in 1990. He was selected to attend Undergraduate Pilot Training at Vance AFB in Oklahoma in 1986 and later served as an aircraft commander and instructor pilot in the 920th Air Refueling Squadron at Wurtsmith AFB, Michigan. Anderson was selected by NASA in December 1994 and flew on two missions (STS-89 Endeavour and STS-107 Columbia), logging over 593 hours in space. Tragically, Anderson and the other members of the Space Shuttle Columbia crew perished during re-entry on February 1, 2003. Anderson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the NASA Space Flight Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and the Defense Distinguished Service Medal.

Stephanie Wilson. Photo Credit: NASA

Stephanie Wilson received her bachelor of science degree in engineering science from Harvard University in 1988 and a master of science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas in 1992, where her research focused on the control and modeling of large, flexible space structures. She was employed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory before being selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in April 1996. Wilson flew on three missions (STS-121, STS-120, and STS-131) and has logged over 42 days in space. During her time in space, Wilson was responsible for operating the robotic arm for vehicle inspection and EVA support and served as flight engineer for STS-120.

Joan Higginbotham. Photo Credit: NASA

Joan Higginbotham received her bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in 1987, a master of management from Florida Institute of Technology in 1992, and a master of science in space systems from Florida Institute of Technology in 1996. Higginbotham acted as a Payload Electrical Engineer in the Electrical and Telecommunications Systems Division at Kennedy Space Center in 1987. She has flown on one mission (STS-116) on the Space Shuttle Discovery and spent over 12 days in space.

Benjamin A. Drew. Photo Credit: NASA

Colonel Benjamin Alvin Drew, Jr. earned two bachelor of science degrees from the United States Air Force Academy in astronautical engineering and physics in 1984. He earned a master of aerospace science from Embry Riddle University in 1995 and a master of strategic studies in political science from the United States Air Force Air University in 2006. He has over 3,500 hours of flying experience in 30 different types of aircraft. Drew was selected as a mission specialist by NASA in July 2000. He has flown on two missions (STS-118 and STS-133) where he logged over 612 hours in space. He completed a spacewalk on STS-133 on February 28, 2011 to assist in outfitting the truss of the ISS.

Leland Melvin. Photo Credit: NASA

Leland D. Melvin earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from the University of Richmond while playing wide receiver for their NCAA football team. Melvin was drafted into the National Football League by the Detroit Lions in 1986 and spent time with the Dallas Cowboys and the Toronto Argonauts. Following injuries that ended his professional football career, Melvin returned to school and earned his master of science degree in materials science engineering from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. His NASA career began in 1989 as an aerospace research engineer at Langley Research Center. He was selected into the Astronaut Corps by NASA in 1998 and served as a mission specialist on two space shuttle missions to the ISS (STS-122 and STS-129). Melvin is currently the Associate Administrator for Education at NASA and is responsible for the development and implementation of the agency’s education programs.

Robert Satcher. Photo Credit: NASA

Dr. Robert L. Satcher, Jr. received a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1986, a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from MIT in 1993, and a doctor of medicine degree from Harvard Medical School in 1994. He completed his internship and residency in orthopedic surgery at the University of California, San Francisco in 2000. Dr. Satcher was selected by NASA to be an Astronaut Candidate in 2004. He flew on the 31st shuttle flight to the International Space Station (STS-129) and performed two spacewalks for a total EVA time of 12 hours and 19 minutes.

Four other African-Americans were selected by NASA as astronauts that did not have the opportunity to fly in space: Livingston Holder, Michael E. Belt, Yvonne Cagle, and Jeanette J. Epps. Each of these dedicated people believed in the advancement of human knowledge and space exploration, and some made the ultimate sacrifice doing what they felt was worth the risk for this endeavor. This month, and every month of the year, we should recognize and thank these heroes for their passion for exploration of the great beyond.

For more information on these astronauts, please read their full biographies:

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/bluford-gs.html

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/mcnair.html

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/gregory-fd.html

http://www.nasa.gov/about/highlights/bolden_bio.html

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/jemison-mc.html

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/harris.html

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/scott.html

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/curbeam.html

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/anderson.html

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/wilson.html

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/higginbo.html

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/drew-ba.html

http://www.nasa.gov/offices/education/leadership/melvin_bio.html

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/satcher-rl.html

4 comments to Celebrating Black History Month: NASA’s African-American Astronauts

  • Lawrence would have transitioned to NASA in 1969 when MOL was cancelled, and flown on space shuttles. But your statement “Major Robert Lawrence was the first African-American selected for astronaut training by NASA” is wrong.

    And don’t be nationalistic — the first African-American in orbit was Cuban, Arnaldo Tamayo-Mendez, as I recall.

    • Kerri Phillips

      Jim, thank you for your comment. I was essentially trying to encompass NASA’s African American Astronauts as listed by NASA. As for Arnaldo Tamayo-Mendez, he is considered the first Hispanic and the first person of African heritage in space when he flew aboard Soyuz 38 in 1980 and was selected to fly through the Soviet Union’s space program and not NASA. To my knowledge he was not American, and thus was not the first “African-American” in space. This article was just focused on African-American Astronauts selected by NASA.

      http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/286592main_African_American_Astronauts_FS.pdf

  • Thanks for including me in your article. When we lost Challenger and her crew I knew that my chance to fly into space was lost as well. I was assigned to a specific DoD payload that was eventually transitioned to an ELV i.e. no need for a Payload Specialist. After I left the Air Force I joined Boeing’s Space Station Team where I was able to contribute to NASA’s human exploration mission. I continue to believe in the future of human spaceflight and encourage our youth to pursue aspirations of science, technology, and space exploration.

  • Kerri Phillips

    Mr. Holder, thank you for commenting on my article! I apologize that I did not include additional information on those who did not have the opportunity to fly in space. Thank you for the comment – as an astronaut hopeful I am honored that you read and commented on my article. Thank you for serving as an inspiration to so many!