Black History Month: Looking Back, Looking Forward at the Contributions of African-American Astronauts

Charlie Bolden, pictured at the commander’s station on STS-60 in February 1994. This flight, 25 years ago, saw the first joint U.S.-Russian participation in manned space exploration since the Apollo-Soyuz era. Bolden went on to become NASA’s first African-American administrator. Photo Credit: NASA

Twenty-five years ago, this month, an African-American astronaut commanded one of the most pivotal missions in U.S. spaceflight history. Charlie Bolden—veteran of three previous flights, including the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST)—led the crew of shuttle Discovery on an eight-day mission whose primary objective was scientific research and satellite deployment and retrieval. In this sense, STS-60 closely mirrored many previous flights of the shuttle era.

But for Bolden, who would go on to become the first African-American administrator of NASA (under the leadership of the first African-American President), it marked a milestone, for it included both Russian and U.S. crew members for the first time since the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). In commanding STS-60, Bolden was not only forging a path to future co-operation with Russia, but was also continuing a long line of contributions made by African-American astronauts in space.

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Historic Opportunity Rover Mission on Mars Comes to Silent End

Opportunity casts its shadow in this image from sol 180 (July 26, 2004), taken by the rover’s front hazard-avoidance camera, on the edge of Endurance Crater. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s been a long 15 years, but the inevitable has finally happened: the Opportunity rover’s days of exploring Mars are over. The sad news was announced this morning at 2 pm ET in a NASA press briefing, bringing an official end to one of the most successful Mars missions in history.

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Remembering Endeavour's Penultimate Flight to Deliver ISS 'Room with a View', 9 Years Ago

The penultimate flight of NASA’s space shuttle Endeavour on mission STS-130, launched at 4:14 a.m. EDT on February 8, 2010. Endeavour carried out ISS assembly flight 20A, bringing with it the Tranquility module and the Cupola, which is a robotic control station with six windows around its sides and another in the center, providing a 360-degree view around the station & the Earth below. Endeavour and her crew of 6 traveled over 5.7 MILLION miles during their 13-day orbit of the Earth (217 orbits during the mission). Photo: Mike Killian

When Expedition 57/58 astronaut Anne McClain boarded the International Space Station (ISS), last December, she quickly found what she described as “my new favorite spot”. That spot was the multi-windowed cupola, which sits affixed to the side of Tranquility Node-3 and whose seven observation ports – six circumferential ones and a large circular one at the apex – have been utilized many times to view the Earth and the arrivals and departures of visiting cargo vehicles. McClain was not alone in prizing the cupola’s panoramic view of the Home Planet as the station’s most spectacular location.

This week, it celebrates 9 years since the six astronauts of STS-130 –shuttle Endeavour’s second-to-last mission – installed it and, in doing so, completed the delivery of the last major U.S.-provided ISS component.

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New 'Farewell' Images of 2014 MU69 Reveal Weird Flatter Shape

The farewell view of 2014 MU69. The KBO was illuminated along one edge by the Sun as New Horizons sped past it. The blurring is the result of the long exposure time of the camera. Photo Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/National Optical Astronomy Observatory

When New Horizons sent back its first images of the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) called 2014 MU69 (aka Ultima Thule) last month – by far the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft so far – scientists and the public alike were amazed. Scientists had some ideas as to what to expect, but as always in planetary exploration, there were surprises. The photos showed an object consisting of two “lobes,” one larger than the other, connected together by a very thin “neck” of material – they looked like they were barely touching. It looked like a snowman.

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NASA Makes Last-Ditch Attempts to Contact Opportunity Rover

A Goldstone 111.5-foot (34-meter) beam-waveguide antenna, part of the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in the Mojave Desert in California. Antennas like this are being used to try to communicate with the Opportunity rover. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Opportunity rover has now been on Mars for an incredible 15 years since its landing in Meridiani Planum in January 2004. But it is now looking increasingly likely that the mission has come to an end – the rover hasn’t been heard from since June 10, 2018, after a global dust storm knocked out communications.

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'Better Than The Simulator': Remembering the Rip-Roaring Flight of STS-122

Spacewalker Rex Walheim works to outfit the exterior of Europe’s Columbus lab during STS-122. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/

Launching to space is undoubtedly an exciting and terrifying experience, all rolled into one, as millions of pounds of thrust combine in a controlled explosion to blast a group of humans beyond Earth’s protective veil and into the harsh environment beyond.

But for the crew of STS-122—Commander Steve Frick, Pilot Alan “Dex” Poindexter and Mission Specialists Leland Melvin, Rex Walheim, Stan Love, Hans Schlegel and Léopold Eyharts—who rocketed into orbit aboard shuttle Atlantis on 7 February 2008, the sheer exhilaration took over. In fact, the seven astronauts shrieked, guffawed and chuckled their way into space.

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'Lock the Doors': Remembering Columbia's Loss, OTD in 2003

The beauty of Earth was a sight that none of the STS-107 crew ever grew tired. Photographed through Columbia’s overhead flight deck windows, this astonishing vista was captured on 22 January, six days after launch. Photo Credit: NASA

On this day, 1 February, in 2003, the seven-member crew of shuttle Columbia—Commander Rick Husband, Pilot Willie McCool, Mission Specialists Dave Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Mike Anderson and Laurel Clark and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first spacefarer—were lost during re-entry, after the otherwise hugely successful STS-107. For the past 16 days, Husband and his crew had supported more than 80 scientific experiments in the first Spacehab Double Module, in what was expected to be the last “standalone” science mission of the shuttle era.

What was also known about STS-107—although its true gravity would only become apparent that terrible February morning—was that Columbia had sustained a strike on her thermal-protection system during ascent. A briefcase-sized chunk of foam insulation had been spotted on launch video falling from her External Tank (ET) on 16 January and had impacted the shuttle’s left wing at precisely the spot where Reinforced Carbon Carbon (RCC) panels would later shield her against the extreme temperatures of re-entry. Concern was elevated for a time, but later dismissed.

It was a dismissal which would return to haunt NASA; a dismissal as ill-judged and as ill-conceived as declaring the Titanic to be unsinkable.

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'Major Malfunction': Remembering the Sacrifice of the Challenger Seven

Flocks of terrified birds fly away in the face of Challenger’s roaring ascent from Pad 39B at 11:38 a.m. EST on 28 January 1986. Photo Credit: NASA

On this day in 1986, the sight of shuttle Challenger exploding in the skies above Cape Canaveral painted an indelible mark on the public psyche and still carries the power to haunt. Over the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years to come, the loss of the shuttle and her seven-member crew—Commander Dick Scobee, Pilot Mike Smith, Mission Specialists Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik and Ron McNair and Payload Specialists Greg Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe—would be played out again and again via television and later the internet. An innocence, veteran astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson reflected, was lost on 28 January 1986 and the ramifications of the tragedy entirely reshaped the next quarter-century of the shuttle program. Never again would this inherently dangerous machine be considered truly “safe”.

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'Isn't That Enough?' Remembering Grissom, White and Chaffee, Fallen Crew of Apollo 1

The Apollo 1 crew consisted of (from left) Command Pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger Chaffee. Photo Credit: NASA

At 6:31 p.m. EST on Friday, 27 January 1967—52 years ago, tonight—as darkness fell over Cape Kennedy in Florida, one of the worst disasters ever to befall America’s space program unfolded with horrifying suddenness. Out at the Cape’s Pad 34 sat a two-stage Saturn IB booster, capped with the Command and Service Module (CSM) for Apollo 1. In less than a month’s time, it was hoped, Apollo 1 Command Pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White—who had already earned fame as the United States’ first spacewalker—and Pilot Roger Chaffee would fly the new spacecraft for the first time in a crewed capacity in low-Earth orbit. As outlined in a recent AmericaSpace history article, those plans turned figuratively and literally to ashes in a tragedy forever known as “The Fire.”

As America remembers the disaster which claimed Apollo 1, on this date, over five decades ago, AmericaSpace honors the three men whose careers had already carried them to exalted heights…and, had the hands of fate been kinder, might have taken them further still.

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Good Test Fire for First Crew Dragon Mission Paves Way to Launch NET Late February

SpaceX Falcon 9 test fire for Crew Dragon debut on ‘Demo-1’, currently targeting NET late February 2019 launch from KSC pad 39A in Florida. Photo: SpaceX

SpaceX conducted a long-awaited Static Test Fire yesterday (Jan 24) of the Falcon 9 rocket which will soon launch their first Crew Dragon from Florida, marking the first time a crewed vehicle and ground systems have been integrated together on pad 39A since space shuttle Atlantis last soared on the STS-135 mission almost 8 years ago.

With the milestone pre-flight test complete, both SpaceX and NASA are pressing onward for a ‘no earlier than’ late February liftoff and moving the nation a giant leap closer to its first commercial crew launch.

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