Black History Month - Celebrating Black Space History
While we often celebrate the first to do something, the seconds, thirds and fourths are sometimes overlooked. This Black History Month, we’re celebrating the inspiration people who came after the equally impressive firsts, following the trail they blazed and making Black history just the same.
In 1992, NASA astronaut Mae Jemison set a new standard for the space sector as the first Black woman to fly to space. Jemison defied outdated mindsets and opened the doors to space for an entire generation – but who came next?
In just under 30 years since Jemison travelled to space, only four other Black women have followed in her footprints – Stephanie Wilson, Joan Higginbotham, Sian Proctor and Jessica Watkins.
In 1996, Stephanie Wilson marked her place as the second Black woman in space. Today, she is NASA’s most senior most flown-in-space African American female astronaut, having flown on three Space Shuttle missions to the International Space Station (ISS) and spent 42 days in orbit. She is now one of the 18 crew members on NASA’s Artemis mission, in which a person of colour will land on the moon for the first time. With a diverse range of backgrounds and experience, NASA hopes the Artemis team will inspire diversity and inclusion in the future of space.
“The Artemis Team astronauts are the future of American space exploration – and that future is bright,” commented a senior US government official.
The topic of the first Black man in space is a controversial one. While many people believe it was Guion Bluford in 1983, this isn’t the case. Bluford was the first African American man to fly to space, but Cuban astronaut Arnaldo Méndez flew into orbit aboard a Soviet Soyuz in 1980. This makes him the first Black, Latin American and Cuban man to travel to space. Throughout humble beginnings as an orphan in poverty, working as a shoeshine, carpenter’s assistant and vegetable seller, Méndez always had big dreams of going to space.
“I had dreamed of flying since I was a child… but before the revolution, all paths into the sky were barred because I was a boy who came from a poor black family. I had no chance of getting an education.”
Despite the many challenges he faced, Méndez and his crewmate Yuriy Romanenko spent seven days in space and completed 124 orbits around the Earth. Upon his return, Méndez received the Hero of the Republic of Cuba award and the Order of Lenin from the Soviets for his historic achievements. His incredible story led him on to become the director of international affairs in the Cuban armed forces.
American physicist Ronald McNair became the third Black man to fly in space in 1984. After being selected by NASA as a mission specialist astronaut in 1978, his first spaceflight was on the STS-41B Space Shuttle Challenger mission. On that mission, McNair operated the robotic machinery that allowed an astronaut to perform a spacewalk without being tethered to a spacecraft for the first time ever. This technique was used on future shuttle missions to assemble the ISS and repair vital satellites. In 1968, Ronald was selected to fly on the 25th Space Shuttle mission and the 10th launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Tragically, he died during launch in a fatal accident now known as the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The shuttle exploded 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven astronauts on board. This Black History Month, we’re celebrating Ronald McNair’s life and achievements as a true trailblazer and Black space icon.
In April 2022, American engineer and NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins made history as the first Black woman to live and work aboard the ISS for an extended mission. On her ground-breaking mission, Watkins has been studying Earth, space and biological science, as well as the impact of prolonged spaceflight on humans. She has also been monitoring and photographing geological changes on Earth. Jessica’s love for space stems back to childhood when her passion was ignited by an enrichment program at her elementary school. From that point on, she knew she wanted to study the geology of planets.
“I think it’s important to recognize this as a milestone for our agency and for our country, as well, to know that we are building on the foundation that was laid by the Black woman astronauts who’ve come before me,” she commented. “I’m definitely honored to be a small part of that legacy, but ultimately be an equal member of the crew.”
Of the circa 250 people to board the ISS, less than 10 have been Black. Watkins’ space mission is a huge part of Black history that deserves recognition and celebration.
Representation is a crucial part of any industry, especially within STEM fields. The US STEM sector is only 9% Black as of 2022, with Black individuals earning an average of $58,000 in comparison to $71,900 for white individuals. These are shocking demographics within a sector that represents progression and inclusion.
The list of emblematic Black people the space sector is a long one. These individuals forged, and are continuing to forge, a path for a more inclusive industry through representation and inspiration. Space really is for everyone, and the sector needs people from all walks of life in order to progress and develop. Through further representation and celebration of those who came before, we can nurture an industry that will thrive alongside humanity into the future.