African Americans in the Space Program
Six times a year, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture, showing ways in which the past and present interact by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photographic essays, and a selected list of articles that will further guide the reader. The latest Focus On looks at African American contributions to space research and exploration.
It is not surprising to look at the crew of a space shuttle or the scientists and staff at NASA and see people of all races, including African Americans. This was not always the case, however. Discrimination and official policies of segregation kept African Americans from participating in the early days of space exploration. While NASA now has safeguards designed to ensure that people of all races are treated equally, some of the agency's own facilities were segregated just decades ago.
Today, African American men and women occupy some of NASA's highest ranks, and there have been sixteen black astronauts. Of these, fourteen have so far traveled into space. As was the case with other segregated institutions, change required political pressure from the highest levels, the brilliance and indispensable talents of African American soldiers and researchers—and a lot of time. Even now, of the more than 325 people selected to be astronauts, only about five percent are African American, meaning that more progress is yet to come.
This photo essay has been put together to give readers a brief sample of some African American trailblazers in the space program. Included are men and women who went to space, as well as those whose contributions are less well known, but perhaps even more extraordinary.
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The following entries have been selected to help guide readers who want to understand more about African Americans in the space program.