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View from the Top | Happy Black History Month – in Retrospect

By SRAI News posted 03-13-2024 08:55 AM


View from the Top | Happy Black History Month – in Retrospect!

My university is located in Huntsville, AL. Also located in Huntsville, AL, is the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), the heart of the U.S. space program since its beginnings in the 1960s.

The 1960s were NASA's boom years, and Marshall (MSFC) was designated as the agency's propulsion center, developing the rockets that would launch NASA's missions into space. MSFC helped make history in 1961 when its Mercury-Redstone rocket powered Alan B. Shepard into suborbital flight, making him the first American in space. Marshall's primary task during the 1960s was developing the Saturn rockets used in the Apollo moon missions. They aimed to fulfill President John F. Kennedy's challenge to NASA to execute a moon landing by the decade's end.

Many of us have seen or are familiar with the movie "Hidden Figures," which focuses on three Black computer programmers, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan, and their brilliant work that propelled the first American, John Glenn, into orbit in 1962.  

There is another little-known history of NASA's race to space, documented in "The Space Race: The Untold Story of the First Black Astronauts," which sheds light on an important aspect of space exploration history that has often been overlooked or marginalized. I must admit I had no idea this ever happened – imagine that – the heart of the U.S. space program is in my backyard, and I had no idea.

National Geographic states that the documentary "weaves together the stories of Black astronauts seeking to break the bonds of social injustice to reach for the stars." I agree with it 100%. After viewing the documentary, my emotions were all over the place. Here are some of the lessons I learned from viewing the documentary:

The documentary highlights the challenges faced by Captain Ed Dwight and other Black astronauts in a predominantly white and often racially biased space program. It underscores the resilience and determination required to navigate and overcome institutional racism.

The presence of Black astronauts in the space program is a powerful symbol of representation. It underscores the importance of diverse perspectives and role models in inspiring future generations, especially those from underrepresented communities, to pursue careers in STEM fields.

The stories of the first Black astronauts emphasize the importance of persistence and perseverance in the face of adversity. Despite numerous obstacles, these individuals remained committed to their goals and ultimately succeeded.

The documentary highlights the role of allies and supporters within the space program who helped pave the way for Black astronauts. It underscores the importance of collaboration and support networks in overcoming systemic barriers.

The documentary provides crucial historical context by examining the intersection of the space race and the civil rights movement. It underscores how broader social and political dynamics influenced the experiences of Black astronauts within the space program.

While progress has been made since the space program's early days, the documentary also acknowledges that challenges related to diversity and inclusion persist. It took over 20 years (1983) before the first Black astronaut, Guy Bluford, would celebrate that achievement. The documentary serves as a reminder of the ongoing work needed to create a more equitable and inclusive space industry and most importantly “world.” 

What a great way to end Black History Month by highlighting both the triumphs and challenges faced by Black astronauts. Also, why diversity and inclusion are crucial for fostering innovation, understanding, and progress in all aspects of society; by embracing and celebrating differences in race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, and other identities, we cultivate a rich tapestry of perspectives that drive creativity, problem-solving, and societal advancement. 

Authored by Gloria W. Greene, Assistant Vice President, Contracts & Grants
The University of Alabama at Huntsville
SRAI Board of Directors President