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These Black pioneers were pillars of the U.S space program

When you think about America’s space program, your mind probably jumps to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon, the space race between America and the USSR, or perhaps some of the agency’s famous crafts like the space shuttle or the Hubble Space Telescope. But behind all those iconic moments, memories, and machines is NASA’s unique place in America’s racial struggle.

Over the course of its history, NASA has both participated in racial discrimination and contributed to the fight against it. Like many other places in America, the agency that later became NASA, called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), participated in racial segregation. That ended when it became NASA in 1958, but the underlying racial issues of its past echoed for years to come.

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As a result, Black Americans didn’t generally get the same opportunities as their white counterparts at NASA in its early years, but that began to slowly change as the Kennedy and Johnson administrations started to make NASA part of the fight for civil rights. Under these administrations, NASA became part of the fight against segregation in the South, and since then, countless black Americans have helped shape the United States space program.

To learn more about these influential people and their stories, we spoke to Dr. Cathleen Lewis, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum. Here are a few of the individuals she highlighted.

The astronauts

Ed Dwight

Capt. Ed Dwight stands in front of an F-104 jet fighter.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Ed Dwight was the first Black American to be considered for a spot in NASA’s astronaut corps. The Kennedy administration selected Dwight to go through pre-astronaut training because he was a talented pilot in the U.S. Air Force.

Lewis tells Digital Trends that this was viewed as a big deal at the time.

“He didn’t make it through the screening, but it was a celebrated episode,” Lewis says. “He had been nominated to go through the screening through pressures from the White House.”

No Black American had ever been a candidate for the astronaut program before, so Dwight’s candidacy helped open that door.

Since then, Dwight has held down a mind-bogglingly wide variety of different occupations. He was a systems engineer for IBM, an aviation consultant, a real estate developer, and even a restauranteur. For the past few decades, however, he’s focused his mind on art. Today, he’s an accomplished and highly prolific sculptor.

Robert Lawrence

Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. the United States Air Force officer and the first African-American astronaut, 1967.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Walking through the doors that Dwight flung open was Robert Lawrence, America’s first Black astronaut. He was selected by the U.S. Air Force to become a member of a group of aerospace research pilots for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) Program.

“Lawrence unfortunately died in December of 1967,” Lewis says. “Had he lived, he would have been transferred to NASA as a NASA astronaut candidate and would have been the first black man to fly in space.”

Lawrence was in the back seat of a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter at Edwards Air Force Base in California when it crashed due to the pilot making an error during a test flight.

Guion S. Bluford

Astronaut Guion 'Guy' Bluford smiles while serving as Mission Specialist on the Space Shuttle Challenger's third mission in September 1983.
NASA/Interim Archives/Getty Images

Guion S. Bluford was an Air Force pilot, and in 1978, he was selected to be an astronaut — eventually becoming the first Black American to go to space.

“The class of 1978 was the first class of NASA astronauts that included women and minorities. There were three black men, six women, and one Asian man in that class,” Lewis says. “He became the first Black U.S. citizen in space. His flight was preempted by the Soviet launch of … Cuban Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, who’s accepted as the first Black man in space.”

Bluford went to space in the Challenger space shuttle in August 1983. He was part of what was known as the STS-8 mission, which deployed an Indian communications and weather observation satellite, tested various technologies in orbit, and attempted a number of scientific experiments.

Beyond the astronauts

Astronauts tend to get all of the attention because they’re seen as the brave space adventurers, but Lewis notes that many Black Americans have played important but less publicly visible roles in NASA’s achievements.

“People think of astronauts when they think of NASA and going into space. They don’t think of that army of scientists, engineers, and technicians that are behind it,” Lewis says. “You have to consider the Black engineers who were breaking into the aerospace industry when it had largely been segregated.”

Vance H. Marchbank Jr.

Vance Marchbank stands at attention

There are many Black Americans who were pivotal in NASA missions, but aren’t as well known as the astronauts. One such example is Col. Vance H. Marchbank Jr. — the first Black flight surgeon in the Air Force.

Marchbank wasn’t on the front lines himself, but he did play a critical role in one of NASA’s most historic moments: The first orbit of Earth by a human. As John Glenn circled the planet on February 20, 1962, Marchbank was the man on the ground monitoring his vital signs and making sure his capsule remained safe throughout the journey.

“He had been detailed back to NASA during the Mercury program, and he monitored John’s telemetry from Nigeria during his flight,” Lewis says.

Later in his career, Marchbank helped develop the moon suit and backpacks that were used in the Apollo missions.

Charles Bolden

Charles Bolden on the flight deck of Discovery during STS-60.

Charles Bolden became an astronaut in 1980, and he was part of four separate missions to space — including the mission that successfully deployed the Hubble space telescope in 1990.

But Bolden did more with NASA than go on spacewalks and launch satellites into orbit. In 2009, he became the first Black man to serve as administrator of NASA, after President Barack Obama selected him for the job.

Lewis says Bolden has always been an interesting figure. “He never dreamed of spaceflight as a child. He always wanted to be a pilot,” Lewis says. “He considers himself a pilot, first and foremost, and not an astronaut.”

Today’s NASA pioneers

Jessica Watkins will stay aboard the ISS for six months.

Black Americans are still making history in space today. For instance, Sian Proctor became the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft just last year, and NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins is set to become the first Black woman to undertake a mission on the International Space Station later this year. She’ll be spending six months in the microgravity laboratory on the ISS.

Looking to the future, there’s been a lot of talk about NASA’s Artemis mission, which will take humans to the moon for the first time since 1972. It’s been stated that a woman and person of color will be stepping onto the moon for the first time, but NASA hasn’t officially confirmed any crew details at this point.

“NASA has committed to landing the first woman and the first person of color on the moon as part of Artemis. We have not yet made specific crew assignments for any of the crewed missions,” a NASA spokesperson tells Digital Trends.

Lewis says she feels it’s important that NASA make sure that a person of color is part of the next mission to the moon.

“For NASA to be a sincere American effort, it would have to have a person of color,” Lewis says.

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