African American Achievement at NASA
Earlier this month, during a year that marks the 60th anniversary of human spaceflight, people across the country celebrated National Space Day and recognized the extraordinary achievements made in space exploration and research.
At NMAAHC, we are proud to honor the many African American astronauts, engineers, technicians, and scientists who have contributed to sending humankind to the stars, including astronaut and Cmdr. Victor Glover, USN. Commander Glover recently piloted the first operational flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS), a trip that broke the record for the longest human spaceflight by an American crew.
Whereas over 350 NASA astronauts have traveled into space, Commander Glover currently stands as one of only 15 African Americans who have made the historic trip. Prior to joining NASA, he flew more than 3,000 flight hours in more than 40 different aircraft, including combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and contributed to the indelible legacy of African American astronauts when he became part of the 21st NASA astronaut class in 2013.
Commander Glover made history as the first-ever Black astronaut to live on the ISS as part of a long-duration mission. NMAAHC, in partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, documented Glover’s historic journey. We also helped him connect with those on the ground who were curious about his scientific experiments, space walks, weather studies, and other research that contributes to our understanding of our planet and universe—from a vantage point that very few will ever reach.
Commander Glover’s success stands on the shoulders of such African American aerospace pioneers as Capt. Ed Dwight Jr. (Ret.), USAF, a renowned sculptor and the first African American to be selected as an astronaut trainee; Col. Guion S. Bluford Jr. (Ret.), USAF, the first African American to travel into space; the late mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose calculations were fundamental to the safety and success of multiple space missions, including the first lunar landing; and astronaut, doctor, and engineer Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to travel into space.
Captain Dwight’s 1961 nomination followed President John F. Kennedy’s recommendation that NASA select qualified African American candidates to become astronaut trainees, a decision that garnered national attention and became a symbol of progress amid the growing intensity of the Civil Rights Movement. Real progress, however, would be slow in coming: at that time, African American pilots, engineers, scientists, and maintenance workers still were not allowed to use the same bathrooms as their white peers in NASA’s Huntsville, Alabama facilities. Ultimately, Captain Dwight was not selected to become an astronaut. And it would be more than 20 years before a Black astronaut would go to space.
In 1978, Colonel Bluford, Col. Fred Gregory (Ret.), USAF, and the late Ronald McNair were selected to become part of NASA astronaut group 8, the first class of astronauts to include women and minorities. It took Russia’s launch of Afro-Cuban astronaut Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez in 1980, as well as increasing demand from the American public that NASA represent our nation’s diversity on the world stage, for an African American to travel in space. Colonel Bluford captured that role in history with the August 30, 1983 launch of the orbiter Challenger. McNair became the second African American in space in 1984, followed by Colonel Gregory in 1985. Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr. (Ret.), USMC, the fourth African American astronaut in space, was later appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 to be the first African American to lead NASA—another achievement in Black history.
Just as these astronauts benefited from the powerful legacies of the African Americans who came before them, their work continues to inspire current and future generations. Astronaut and aerospace engineer Jeanette Epps is slated to become the 16th African American astronaut in space—and the fourth Black woman—when her mission to the ISS launches in late 2021. Astronauts Jessica Watkins and Stephanie Wilson, members of NASA’s Artemis Team, are paving the way for human explorers to return to the moon by 2024; either could become the first woman to walk on the lunar surface. And other African American space pioneers are poised to follow.
As Victor Glover said in an interview before his 2020 flight, “To work and live in space is just a humbling and amazing blessing in and of itself. This is a test pilot’s dream.” With the support of friends like you, the Museum is honored to share the dreams and achievements of Glover and other African American heroes—both the known and the unrecognized. Together we are shining a light on the centrality of the African American experience to the history of this nation and the world.