(More) Hidden Figures in Space Exploration

February was Black History month and, if you missed it, the team here at Rocket was hot off a successful rocket launch we sponsored with the team at bluShift Aerospace.  

With space exploration still on the brain, we decided to celebrate Black history month by researching some of space exploration's coolest, most inspiring Black history.

Here's our top picks. 👩🏾‍🚀

Dr. Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison is perhaps most known for being the first Black woman in space but, good golly, this woman did just about EVERYTHING.

Jemison graduated from Stanford, with dual degrees in Chemical Engineering and African American Studies. She rounded off her education with a Doctorate in Medicine from Cornell and somehow found the time to travel the world. She led a medical study in Cuba, worked at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand, and worked throughout Africa as a member of the Peace Corps. Along the way she picked up Japanese, Swahili, and Russian.

At this point, the only direction she could go was UP. Literally.

Jemison applied to the NASA Space Program in 1987 and was among the seven astronauts on the 1992 Endeavor mission. It was during this mission that she became the first Black woman in space.

In 1993, Jemison left NASA and started a consultancy company designed to spearhead social and technological change. She started numerous non-profits and currently is working on the 100 Year Starship program, making sure that space travel to another star will happen in the next century.

Oh and, we can’t forget, she played Lt. Palmer in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Major Robert H. Lawrence

Major Robert H. Lawrence is best known as being the first Black astronaut but, sadly, he was killed in a training accident before he could make it into space. Though his legacy is one that has continued to impact generations of astronauts, his name is one that fell into obscurity following his untimely death.

Lawrence was part of something a little different from NASA, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program. Established during the Cold War, the MOL was essentially a military reconnaissance effort to obtain satellite imagery. Here, Lawrence stood out. He had both extensive military AND academic experience, having logged more than 2,500 flight hours in the Air Force and earning a PhD in physical chemistry.

Lawrence primarily worked on a type of supersonic jet the MOL dubbed “the Starfighter.”  On December 8, 1967, he was instructing a trainee on landing techniques when the plane crashed, ejecting and killing Lawrence. The accident was a blow to his fellow MOL astronauts, many of whom were reabsorbed into NASA when the program was cut short two years later.

Other parts of the MOL would be picked up by NASA as well. Among them, the techniques for piloting the Starfighter, which became known as a precursor to NASA’s space shuttle. In 2017, 50 years after Lawrence’s death, his legacy as a pilot and space pioneer was honored when his name was added to the Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Center.

Dr. Beth A. Brown

A glance at the Ring Nebula while on a school field trip was all it took to hook Dr. Beth A. Brown on all things space.

Brown went on to Howard University, where she graduated summa cum laude with degrees in physics and astronomy. From there she went on to be the first Black woman to earn a PhD in astronomy at the University of Michigan in 1998.

During the course of her higher education, Brown worked as an intern and then as a post-doc at NASA. She eventually was hired for her dream job, researching the stars as a NASA astrophysicist.

Key in Brown’s NASA research was her study of elliptical galaxies, a phenomenon resulting from two smaller galaxies merging together and, with them, a pair of supermassive black holes. To study elliptical galaxies, Brown collected data using NASA’s ROSAT X-ray satellite and the Chandra X-ray observatory.

Tragically, Brown died in 2008 of a pulmonary embolism. Today, she’s remembered for her lifelong passion for the stars. Literally. At the University of Michigan, Brown’s popular “naked eye astronomy” courses helped Brown spread her love for all things space. Brown also championed education and helping minorities and women succeed in STEM, specifically in physics.

Personally, we love that she is also remembered as a massive fan of all things Star Trek and Star Wars.

Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez

Believe it or not, the first Black man in space wasn't American, he was actually a Cuban who joined the Soviet space program at the behest of Fidel Castro himself.

Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez was the first Black man and Latin American in space. Born in Cuba, he joined the Cuban air force following the Cuban Revolution. From there, he traveled to the Soviet Union and flew 20 reconnaissance missions during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  His experience as a military pilot made him a prime cosmonaut candidate and he joined the Interkosmos program in 1978.

In 1980 he made history when he traveled into space aboard the Soyuz 38. Upon his return he received the Soviet Union’s highest decoration, the Order of Lenin, as well as the honor of Hero of the Republic of Cuba, awarded by (you guessed it) Fidel Castro.

Dr. Bernard Harris

Dr. Bernard Harris may be most famous for being the first Black man to walk in space but his list of achievements goes on and on and ON.

Harris holds a bunch of degrees, including a Master of Medical Science, a Master of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Medical Science. He’s also a trained flight surgeon, a licensed pilot, and a certified scuba diver, because why not?

Harris joined NASA and became an astronaut in 1991. He’d go on to make the trek into space twice. The first, in 1993 aboard the Columbia, he didn’t walk in space. However, over the course of the 10-day mission he accumulated 1 year of flight time, logging over 4.1 million miles traveled in space. The second, in 1995, on board the Discovery, he became the first Black man to walk in space in the course of helping retrieve the Spartan 204 satellite. During this flight, Harris also added another few million miles to his space travel, bringing his total to more than 7.2 million miles!

Harris left NASA in 1996. Far from even thinking about retirement, he’s since worked for and sponsored numerous education and non-profit initiatives and entered the fray of the business world. His resume includes Vice Presidencies at a space informatics firm, as well as a space commercialization company. Currently, he’s serving as CEO at a venture capital accelerator, investing in early-stage medical informatics & technology.

When that scuba license will come in handy, who’s to say. But we can’t wait to see what this guy gets up to next.

Katherine Johnson

One of the subjects of the movie “Hidden Figures,” Katherine Johnson was a wildly smart woman who completed some wildly impactful work. If you haven’t seen the movie, read on.

After graduating high school at 14 (!), Johnson went on to graduate from college summa cum laude with degrees in mathematics and French. In 1939, she was one of the three students to integrate the graduate program at West Virginia University.

Johnson’s career as a mathematician began with NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, where she worked as a human “computer” from 1953 to 1958, when digital computers replaced her. Fortunately, NASA had superseded NACA at this point and Johnson was hired there as an aerospace technologist.

At NASA, Johnson calculated flight trajectories for some of American history’s most famous space exploration missions. Among them were those for Alan Shepard’s flight as the first American in space, John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth, and Apollo 11’s mission to the moon. Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book “Hidden Figures,” said it best:

So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.

Johnson died last year at the age of 101 and, thanks in part to the success of “Hidden Figures,” her incredible story and hugely influential legacy seem unlikely to be forgotten.