NASA’s African American History: From Hidden Figures to Artemis

From nearly all-white beginnings, the agency is set to put the first woman and person of color on the moon.

nasa katherine johnson astronaut stephanie wilson

NASA research mathematician Katherine Johnson, left, in 1962, and Artemis astronaut Stephanie Wilson in 2007. [Courtesy: NASA]

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a month-long series celebrating Black History Month through aviation: Feb. 1: African American Pioneers in Flight and Space | Feb. 4: Legacy Flying Academy | Feb. 10: Why Aren’t There More Black Pilots in the Air Force? | Feb. 11: Jesse L. Brown | Feb. 15: Meet Four African Americans Making a Difference in Aviation | Feb. 18: From “Hidden Figures” to “Artemis” | Feb. 22: Black Heritage Aviation | Feb. 25: Cal Poly Humboldt

As soon as 2025, NASA is planning to send human explorers to the moon for the first time in more than half a century. Among those astronauts setting foot on the lunar surface will be a woman and a person of color. 

That historic announcement, revealed in its FY 2022 budget, effectively made diversity and inclusion an official goal of the Artemis Program, whose first uncrewed launch is expected to lift off later this year.

The fact that gender and racial diversity have become an official requirement of Artemis serves as a stark reminder of NASA’s long journey from its beginnings as a virtually all-white, all-male space agency.

Former astronaut, ex-NASA administrator, and retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr. remembers the days when he thought it was nearly impossible for a Black man to go to space. 

“I didn’t think I had a chance,” Bolden told FLYING

Prior to becoming an astronaut, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr. served as a test pilot and combat fighter pilot. [Courtesy: NASA]

In many ways, Bolden’s life story embodies NASA’s journey toward increasing opportunities for people of color. In 28 years, Bolden went from a Black man with a seemingly impossible dream to one of NASA’s first Black astronauts and the first African-American head of NASA. 

You might say Bolden never would have made that journey without the encouragement of another historic figure. 

In the late 1970s, Bolden was a talented Marine Corps test pilot stationed at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. He had never considered applying to NASA, despite the recent inclusion of three fellow African Americans in the astronaut program. 

The trio—Guion Bluford, Frederick Gregory, and Ronald McNair—had all been chosen in 1978 as part of Group 8, the first group of astronauts chosen for the space shuttle program. 

By chance, McNair visited the Maryland base and happened to meet Bolden. That meeting dramatically changed the course of Bolden’s career. 

Both men had grown up in segregated South Carolina, where racial discrimination was a way of life. The pair forged a friendship, sharing details about their careers, their goals, and their dreams.

Finally, as McNair was getting ready to climb aboard his T-38 to leave the base, he looked at Bolden and said, “Hey, are you going to apply for the [astronaut] program?”

“Ron, not on your life,” Bolden replied. Looking at Bolden incredulously, McNair asked, “Why not?”

“They’d never pick me,” Bolden answered.

“That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” McNair told Bolden. “How do you know, if you don’t ask?”

Bolden felt embarrassed. “I had forgotten what my mom and dad had taught me all my life: that I should try to do anything I wanted to do and not let anybody tell me that I couldn’t.”

“So when Ron left, I took up pen and paper and I put in my application for the space shuttle program,” Bolden remembered.

Soon, NASA chose Bolden for the space shuttle program, which led to four shuttle missions including roles as commander and pilot, and later a term as NASA administrator, the first African American to be named to that position.

Tragically, years after inspiring Bolden to fight for his dream, McNair would be one of seven astronauts lost during liftoff in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.

Hidden Figures

The fact that it took NASA more than 20 years to send astronauts of color to space speaks to a larger question that has vexed the space agency for decades: How can NASA increase opportunities for African Americans and other people of color? 

NASA says African Americans represent only 12 percent of its current workforce. For decades NASA has been working to make the space agency more diverse and inclusive. 

But that hasn’t always been the case. 

In the beginning, talented African Americans looking for opportunities to serve in the U.S. space agency had to battle against segregation and discrimination. Their struggles and triumphs went largely untold until author Margot Lee Shetterly shed light on them in her book Hidden Figures, which later inspired an Oscar-nominated film.

Hidden Figures celebrates the critical contributions of NASA’s unsung African American heroines of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, including Mary W. Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan.  

“We were the pioneers of the space era,” Johnson told The Daily Press in 1990. “You had to read Aviation Week to find out what you’d done."

Mary W. Jackson was NASA’s first Black female engineer. She conducted wind tunnel experiments at NASA Langley Research Center. [Courtesy: NASA] 

Mary W. Jackson

Jackson, after successfully fighting Virginia’s segregation laws to attend night school, became NASA’s first Black female engineer in 1958. “She very well may have been the only Black female aeronautical engineer in the field” at the time,” NASA says.

Eventually, Jackson became frustrated at her inability to break into management-level grades, NASA says, leaving engineering and taking a demotion to be Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. Nonetheless, she “continued to influence the hiring and promotion of the next generation of NASA’s women mathematicians, engineers, and scientists.”In 2020, NASA honored Jackson by naming its Washington, D.C., headquarters building after her.

Katherine Johnson at work at NASA Langley Research Center in 1980. [Courtesy: NASA]

Katherine Johnson

Without Johnson’s work, many of NASA’s most historic missions would not have been possible. She performed trajectory analysis for the 1961 Mercury-Redstone 3 mission that sent the first American, Alan Shepard, into space. She also worked on John Glenn’s historic mission to become the first American to orbit the planet. During Apollo, Johnson made calculations that helped the Lunar Module on the moon sync with the orbiting Command and Service Module. In the ’80s, Johnson worked on Space Shuttle missions. 

In 2015, Johnson was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Dorothy Vaughan, left, in an undated photo. (Courtesy: NASA)

Dorothy Vaughan

In the 1950s, Vaughan led Langley’s West Area Computing section under NASA’s predecessor — the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). As Hidden Figures dramatically illustrated, the section’s all-Black staff was originally required to use separate dining areas and bathrooms. According to NASA, it wasn’t until 1958—when NACA transitioned to NASA—that the agency put an end to its segregated facilities. 

When Vaughan joined NASA’s new racially and gender-diverse Analysis and Computation Division (ACD), she became an expert in the FORTRAN computer programming language. Before retiring in 1971, Vaughan also contributed to the highly successful Scout Launch Vehicle Program, which put nearly 100 satellites in orbit.

Jackson, Johnson, and Vaughan have all passed on, but their struggles and the trails they blazed for others continue to inspire women and people of color during the 21st century. 

NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. presents an award to Katherine Johnson in 2016. [Courtesy: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani]

‘The Important Thing Is Not That I Am Black’

Through the mid-’60s, as the Civil Rights Movement dominated headlines, the struggle to diversify NASA continued. During the ramp up to the Apollo moonshot program, NASA’s attempts to recruit African American scientists and engineers had little overall effect. Former Kennedy Space Center director Bob Cabana said “there were something like seven Black employees working at the Kennedy Space Center" during Apollo. 

Left to right: Ronald McNair, Guion Bluford, and Fred Gregory were part of NASA’s ground-breaking astronaut class of 1978. [Courtesy: NASA] 

In 1978, to prep for the space shuttle program, NASA selected six women, along with the most racially diverse group of astronauts at that time, including Bluford, Gregory, and McNair.

More than two decades after America’s first crewed spaceflight, aerospace engineer Guion Bluford became NASA’s first Black astronaut to fly in space. [Courtesy: NASA] 

When Bluford flew aboard Challenger in 1983, he became NASA’s first African American astronaut to travel to space. Bluford’s mission, which deployed a communications satellite for India, was the shuttle program’s first night launch and night landing. 

“…the important thing is not that I am Black, but that I did a good job as a scientist and an astronaut,” Bluford later told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “There will be Black astronauts flying in later missions...and they, too, will be people who excel, not simply who are Black...who can ably represent their people, their communities, their country."

Dr. Mae Jemison

In 1992, nearly a decade after Bluford, astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison became the first African American woman in space aboard the shuttle Endeavour. Her dreams to be an astronaut were inspired by the racially diverse science fiction TV series, Star Trek.

Decades later, Jemison told NBC she still feels like she has “responsibilities in terms of making sure that other people will come behind you and that you’re supporting the inclusion of everyone involved.” 

Creating Pipelines

But why did it take 22 years for NASA to send a Black astronaut to space—and 31 years to send an African American woman? 

Bolden says the excuse at the time was, there were no qualified Black astronauts available in the astronaut pool. 

“When you look at people to fly in space, you say, ‘OK, who’s in the pool?’ And the pool was all white males. That’s why it took so long. You’ve got to start infusing diverse people into the pool or go outside the pool to add diversity to the pool.”

NASA’s formal efforts to add diversity to the pool date back to 1971 and the creation of an equal opportunity (EO) office. At the time, NASA’s total Black workforce stood at just 5 percent—the lowest of all federal agencies. In addition to actively seeking out and recruiting Black astronaut candidates, NASA also helped create and expand research centers at historically Black colleges and universities to establish pipelines that fed into NASA’s workforce and astronaut corps. By 2008, more than 20 percent of NASA’s science and engineering workforce were minorities. 

U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr. commanded Space Shuttle Columbia’s STS-60 flight in 1994. [Courtesy: NASA]

Bolden’s Influence

When Bolden took the reins as NASA administrator in 2009, he made it clear that diversity and inclusion were going to play an integral part of NASA’s strategic decision-making and everyday workplace interaction.

During his tenure in 2016, NASA held its first Mission STEM Summit, aimed at creating a pipeline for a future diverse workforce. Mission STEM programs are designed to engage, foster and encourage students with an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The strategy provides a framework to create unique opportunities for a diverse set of students who might eventually contribute to NASA research and exploration.

That year, out of more than 2,000 NASA civil service employees at Kennedy Space Center, 27.2 percent were minorities. 

As for NASA astronauts, of the hundreds who have gone to space, only 15 have been African Americans. 

Mission Equity

Now, NASA has decided to take an even closer look at itself. Last year, NASA launched an internal initiative called Mission Equity, described as “a comprehensive effort to assess agency programs, procurements, grants, and policies, and examine what potential barriers and challenges may exist for communities that are historically underrepresented and underserved.”

“At NASA, we’re committed to making air, space, science and technology available for everyone because we know we’re stronger and better together.” NASA says on the Mission Equity webpage.

Artemis astronaut Stephanie Wilson is an aerospace engineer and veteran of three space shuttle missions. [Courtesy: NASA]

Who Will Be First?

Before the first woman and person of color journey to the lunar surface, NASA has planned two missions leading up to the historic moonwalk. Artemis I will be an uncrewed test mission and Artemis II will be a flyby mission with a crew of four. 

Who will be the first? So far, NASA hasn’t announced any specific crew assignments. However, astronauts have been named for the overall program. 

Among them are nine people of color, including three African Americans: U.S. Navy test pilot Capt. Victor J. Glover, geologist Jessica A. Watkins, and aerospace engineer Stephanie D. Wilson, a veteran of three shuttle missions to the International Space Station. 

One of these astronauts very well could be the next human to walk on the moon.

Artemis astronaut Jessica Watkins is a geologist with a focus on the geology of Mars. [Courtesy: NASA]

‘Just Do It’

NASA’s decision to publicly announce that Artemis would put the first woman and the first person of color on the moon was “unfortunate,” Bolden says. 

“It puts undue pressure on whoever the first woman selected, or the first African-American, or Indian, or Native American or whoever it is,” he says. “Those people—the one or two—are going to have to sustain a constant onslaught by critics who will say the only reason they’re they’re is because somebody decided that they were going to do this—someone will say they’re not qualified.”

Instead of saying it, Bolden says he would have preferred that NASA, in his words, “just do it. Don’t talk about it.”

Nonetheless, Bolden says NASA is moving in the right direction, but the job is far from over. 

He applauds the space agency’s current leadership—including administrator Bill Nelson, a former U.S. senator and a one-time shuttle crewmember—for “what they’re doing to preach the gospel of diversity and inclusion and equity. That's just what they have to keep doing.”

“You know, as a nation, our diversity is our strength,” Bolden says. “I’m the eternal optimist and I think it will serve us well.”

Thom is a former senior editor for FLYING. Previously, his freelance reporting appeared in aviation industry magazines. Thom also spent three decades as a TV and digital journalist at CNN’s bureaus in Washington and Atlanta, eventually specializing in aviation. He has reported from air shows in Oshkosh, Farnborough and Paris. Follow Thom on Twitter @thompatterson.

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