October in the UK and February in the US marks the celebration of Black History Month which gives us an incredible opportunity to recognise and celebrate the achievements and contributions of influential Black figures within the Space Industry and the STEM sectors. Whilst there are so many people that have made incredible contributions in the sector we have picked some of our favourite stories to tell and hope we can share more for years to come. Black people have been continuously underrepresented in STEM and to this day more still needs to be done to influence more diversity in these sectors. We hope that knowing more about role models in this sector can inspire generations of prospective STEM students and contribute to building a more inclusive society.
At EVONA we are right in the centre of Bristol and are proud to be located in the heart of a city that supports diversity and culture. Speaking to the values of our city we know the importance of educating not only others but ourselves on Black History. May 2020 saw the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and here in Bristol we learnt a lot about the city’s past involvement in the Slave Trade and significant amounts of discrimination which lead to the removal of statues and the renaming of a number of buildings. Whilst there’s still so much more to do we continue to keep the conversation surrounding Black lives going and would like to celebrate the lives and the achievements of…
A Doctor, Engineer and NASA Astronaut, Mae Jemison became the first black woman in space on September the 12th 1992 aboard the space shuttle Endeavor. She served in the Peace Corps before submitting a successful application to join the astronaut corps in 1987. Although her initial application was sent in 1985 after being inspired by Sally Ride (Read more about Sally Ride here: Women in Space Article), the first American Woman in Space, due to the Challenger explosion in 1986 NASA halted applications until the following year. During her first mission she was selected to join the STS-47 crew as a Mission Specialist and the team made 127 orbits around the Earth and returned to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on September 20, 1992. Jemison is now responsible for leading the 100 Year Starship project through the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the project is working to ensure human space travel to another star is possible within the next 100 years.
Katharine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson are three African-American mathematicians who worked at NASA in the 1950s. Also known as 'Computers in Skirts', these three women were placed in the highly segregated West Area Computer division of Langley Research Centre. The skills of Johnson, Vaughn & Jackson were widely responsible for putting the first American man into orbit, John Glenn, this being a significant win for the U.S during the Space Race against the Soviet Union after World war II. Whilst their story is now more familiar thanks to the release of hit film ‘Hidden Figures’ in 2017, up until that point the contributions they made were pretty much non-existent in any history books. The incredible stories of these women creates a feeling of hope conflicted with anger. Hope due to astonishing power of education, self-belief and tenacity reflected in their insurmountable successes despite being faced with horrific amounts of racial and gender discrimination which were prominent mid-20thcentury in America.
Maj. Robert H. Lawrence Jr. was the first black person to be selected as an astronaut by any national space programme after becoming a member of the their group of aerospace research pilots for the MOL Programme. Initially he studied at Bradley University gaining a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the age of 20 and then went on to become an Air Force officer and pilot. Holding over 2,500 flying hours in 2000 jets he completed US Air Force Test Pilot school in June 1967 which is when he was immediately assigned to the MOL Programme. However, a fatal crash after ejecting from AF-104 Starfighter supersonic jet on December 8th 1967, meant Lawrence never made it to space. This doesn’t mean his work was not significant as the work he did as a pilot in the programme contributed to the development of the manoeuvre that would become a critical part of space shuttle landing techniques called flare. Furthermore, after the cancellation of the MOL programme seven of the astronauts were transferred over to NASA and were all flown on the Space Shuttle in the 1980’s and the likelihood of Lawrence piloting one of the early missions is a high possibility.
Shirley Ann Jackson has become an influential figure within the physics field after becoming the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on July 1st 1999 and the first African-American woman to lead a national research university. Not only has she achieved getting this prestigious position, she was also the first Black Woman to receive a PHD from MIT, which she got in theoretical elementary particle physics. Her career between graduating from MIT and becoming Rensselaer President has been full of successes. President Clinton appointed Dr. Jackson as the Chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 1995, the first woman and African-American to hold this position. Jackson was also a professor of physics at Rutgers University, conducted research in theoretical physics, solid state and quantum physics, and optical physics at AT&T Bell Laboratories and became president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Being named the Top 50 Women in Science in 2002 her career in STEM has been nothing short of inspirational.
George Carruthers was a pioneer in the use of ultra-violet astronomy for studying the earth, he spent his career in the Space Science Division of the Naval Research Laboratory developing space telescopes in collaboration with NASA. Responsible for the creation of the lunar surface ultra-violet camera which was flown to the moon aboard the Apollo 16 mission to obtain images of Earth and Outer space. However, this same invention was aboard a1970 rocket flight, where the image converter was able to provide the first proof of molecular hydrogen existence in interstellar space. Carruthers was awarded the Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal by NASA for his work on the project. From a young age Carruthers had an affinity towards science and built his first telescope when he was just 12 years old. Continuing to pursue science through his education, he received a Bachelor of Science in aeronautical engineering, a Masters in nuclear engineering and a PHD aeronautical and astronautical engineering.
A research psychologist in the Biomedicine, Patricia Cowings investigated the psycho-physiological and biological problems experienced by astronauts in space; or as it became commonly know, space-sickness. Cowling devised a programme that took just 6 hours for astronauts to learn in order to combat the effects of space-sickness, involving having to control up to 26 physiological functions related to motion sickness, such as heart rate, breathing and blood flow.
Whilst there was so many other life stories of influential people we would have loved to write about, we hope that you have learnt something new and discovered more about someone who made an inspiring impact on the sector. You may even be inspired to take up a new job within the space sector, then you can take a look over on our job listing page.