The Space Age, Race and a Quiet Revolution

In 1992, the Space Shuttle Endeavour made world history. I was on that flight, it was noted in the news: the first woman of color in space. When the Endeavour left the earth, the face of the space exploration changed.

When I returned to Earth, I was interviewed about my flight. "It is important, yes for young black girls to see me aboard exploring space. But it is just as critical that older white men who make so many decisions about engineering scholarships see me and understand the talent and potential of those girls," I said.

Growing up in the 60's, I avidly followed the Apollo missions and our journeys to the moon. I assumed I would travel to Mars to work as a scientist. My childhood was also right in the middle of the modern-day Civil Rights movement, and my parents made sure my brother, sister and I knew African American achievement was not new, nor did the push for full rights start or end with Martin Luther King Jr. There were others who changed the world. In fact, the praiseworthy term "the real McCoy" was coined in the 1800's because they wanted parts by inventor Elijah McCoy, a black man. Former slave and suffragette Sojourner Truth declared, "If women want any more rights, why don't they just take them and not be talking about them." The early 1900's saw black people like Dr. Daniel Hale Williams perform the world's first successful open-heart surgery and Matthew Henson reach the North Pole with Admiral Peary. (So of course, my thirst for science and adventure fit right in.)

So, the little girl I had been was on my mind that day in 1992 when we launched. But alongside me, in the historical background, were others -- the African-American engineers, rocket scientists, physicists, administrators, technicians and life scientists who helped build the space program of which I was part. They have been hidden. In the early years of NASA you could have counted the black professionals on your fingers. NASA engineer Morgan Watson is one of them. In the early 1960's in Alabama he and seven others broke the color barrier at NASA.

The stories of people like Watson are like so much of the African-American history, often marginalized and then forgotten. We think we know the story of civil rights and equal opportunity -- Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but there is also a powerful link with the Space Program.

Consider NASA's role in southern desegregation. In the early days, NASA's main centers were in the heart of what had been the old Confederacy. Huntsville, Alabama -- right next door to Decatur, where I was born -- Houston, and Cape Canaveral, Florida. For the fewer than 50 African-Americans who came to those segregated communities to work at NASA, that new society started off just like the old one they knew, because local customs overrode Federal law which made discrimination illegal. Yet, overt segregation could not continue in facilities and companies that wanted federal contracts. And some of the most lucrative and prestigious contracts were with NASA!

Eventually the new frontier pushed us away from segregation. "The Space-Age" was part of building a new society as literally as we were aiming for the moon.

The promise and openness of space exploration and the determination of my talented African American colleagues at NASA is a legacy I can't ignore. And has profoundly influenced a big new challenge I am leading, 100 Year Starship, that seeks to make the capabilities for human travel to other stars a reality within the next century. Sound impossible to you? If the experiences of African Americans in the Space Program show us anything, it is this: big changes and explosive innovations come from tackling a really hard problem, stretching the limits of what you know, working with people in new, unexpected ways. It is my dream that in aiming for the distant stars, striving for the seemingly insurmountable, as we begin the first of many steps of this inclusive, audacious journey, we will transform life for the better on Earth all along the way.

Dr. Mae Jemison is the leader of the 100 Year Starship project. Learn more about the effect NASA'S space program had on the segregated south in the Soundprint program Race and the Space Race here.