African Americans continue to impact space exploration

Charles Bolden, Nominee for Administrator of NASA, testifying at his confirmation hearing before the senate (AP Photo/Bill Ingalls, NASA)

Attending the confirmation hearing for Charles Bolden, Barack Obama’s choice for NASA Administrator, and listening to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Congressman Jim Clyburn and Senator Ben Nelson talk about Bolden’s stellar credentials was a great experience. After 53 years of triumphs, tribulations and tragedies, America’s premier science agency will have, for the first time, an African American administrator.

Many of us know Guion Buford and Mae Jamison, the first African American man and woman to go into space. But there was another black man in attendance at the confirmation who paved the way, a man whose journey as an astronaut candidate trainee started in 1961. His name: Ed Dwight.

At the suggestion of the National Urban League’s Whitney M. Young, Jr., the John F. Kennedy administration chose Dwight as the first black astronaut trainee in 1962. Ed was catapulted to instant fame; he was featured on the covers of Ebony, Jet and Sepia, and in news magazines around the world.

His slate to journey to the moon came with a price. Hate mail decrying “No Coon on the Moon” would only become subject for the many speeches he gave across the country to the black audiences facing severe discrimination. Despite these obstacles, Dwight persevered until Kennedy’s death. He resigned in 1966, never having gone into space. He was America’s first black astronaut candidate.

Dwight’s journey reads like a movie script. In his Biography Soaring on the Wings of a Dream, Dwight detailed how he came to know he was out of the running for the space program. In the mid-1970’s, Dwight went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Denver and went on to become a sculptor of international fame. His works include statues of Martin Luther King, Jr., and baseball legend Hank Aaron and the Frederick Douglass Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Proceeding Ed Dwight was another African American, Air Force Major Robert Lawrence, whose astronaut dreams ended in tragedy. In June of 1967, Major Lawrence had successfully completed the Air force Flight Test Training School at Edwards Air Force Base. That same month he was chosen as astronaut in the Air force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program (MOL). Lawrence was killed on December 8, 1967 in an accidental crash of an F-104 Star Fighter at Edwards Air Force Base.

The Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) part of the Air Forces manned space flight program he, along with Dwight, was slated for was cancelled in 1969. But that effort eventually led to the International Space Station and many of the astronauts were later chosen by NASA. After many years of being unheralded, his service and sacrifice to the nation was finally recognized on the thirtieth anniversary of his death by the inclusion of his name on the Astronaut Memorial Foundation in Florida.

But many more African Americans have left their indelible print on NASA’s storied journey to the moon, including:

Robert Shurney: A physicist from Tennessee State University, Dr. Shurney designed the tires for the moon buggy used during the Apollo 15 mission in 1972.

Dr. Vance Marchbanks: A heart surgeon and medical specialist for NASA, Dr. Marchbanks developed ways to monitor astronauts’ vital signs during space flight. It was Dr. Marchbanks who was responsible for John Glenn’s health during America’s first orbital flight.

George Carruthers: An astronautical engineer, Carruthers built the camera that was carried to the moon on Apollo 16.

But space pioneering does not stop in the past. Today there is a new crop of African American space entrepreneurs involved in what is called the New Private Space Era/ Space Tourism who understand the importance of the new commercial space entrepreneurial efforts in maintaining and strengthening the US space sector (commercial, civil and military) as a major economic force.

Dr. Jayfus Doswell is head of the Jurban team that entered the Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP) competition in May 2008 to take on a space entrepreneurship challenge. The team is from Baltimore, Maryland and comprised of African American high school and college students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSI) as well as professional engineers. They will compete with 19 teams from around the world for a total prize of $30 million dollars. The main competition involves flying a robot to the moon before 2012, navigating 500 meters across the lunar surface and transmitting images back to earth.

Others include:

Joe Fuller, President Futron Corporation: His company wrote up the first definitive assessment of the private space tourism industry possibilities and its economic viability

Patti Grace Smith: Served as Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation within the Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), heading the office responsible for overseeing and regulating the U.S. commercial space transportation industry. Now a consultant working with the private space industry

Ken Harvey 4 times NFL Pro Bowler and Allen Herbert Aerospace Engineer: Working with Zero Gravity Corporation, developed Floatball, a game to be played in various gravity environments called Floatball and working on ways to adapt traditional sports to the Zero Gravity environment.

Many African countries like Nigeria and South Africa are also developing their own space programs. These countries are becoming part of the space-faring community along with China, India and Brazil.

This week as we celebrate America’s historical landing on the moon 40 years ago, let’s remember these individuals of the past with the present and the echo of Charles Bolden’s voice, emphasizing that it is time for us, this generation, to inspire the next. Surrounded by my children, I believe we will soon celebrate the first African American to set foot on the moon.