Honoring Black Space Pioneers: The Next Generation
March 2, 2023
As Black History Month comes to a close, I am inspired by all the amazing people who have paved the way for scientific advancement today and have allowed me to ultimately become a steward for space.
When reflecting on their stories, I am reminded about all we each have had to overcome. Early in my career, I was told engineering wasn’t for me, a security guard from the military. I was told that my choice of clothing, hair style, piercings, and ink would hinder what I’d achieve, that the engineering world wasn’t ready for someone like me. Indeed, I have never fit this mold. I realized that I should let no one’s opinion become my reality and that I am not a cookie cutter scientist or engineer, whatever that means. These Black space pioneers have enabled me to feel empowered in bringing my authentic self to the world each and every day.
It is through their stories below that I hold space for hope that we shall indeed achieve space environmentalism and sustainability as we continue to explore the universe. I never learned about these folks in a formal classroom and we shouldn’t have the need for Black History as opposed to simply History. Those that follow were the first at things, and that allowed me to be first at a few myself. I’m the first Aerospace Engineer selected as a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow and a TED Fellow. I’m the first Black professor of Aerospace Engineering & Engineering Mechanics at The University of Texas at Austin. My hope is that mine enables others to keep trailblazing. (I have a running joke that the character Rich Purnell in The Martian was portrayed after me.)
- Katherine Johnson: We first honored Katherine Johnson, whose name you may recognize from the award-winning film, Hidden Figures. She was one of the first Black women to work as a NASA scientist, and her calculations of orbital mechanics were essential to the success of America’s first – and subsequent – crewed spaceflights.
- Benjamin Banneker: We then went back in time to look at Benjamin Banneker, America’s first Black astronomer. In 1791, he authored an almanac that accurately predicted the positions of the Sun, the Moon, and the planets, going against well-known mathematicians and astronomers of the time.
- Mae Jemison & Guion ‘Guy’ Bluford: Then, the first Black American woman and man in space: Mae Jemison and Guion 'Guy' Bluford. In 1983, Guy made history becoming the first Black American in space. Since his first mission, he’s logged over 688 hours (or 28 days) in space. Mae quickly followed suit. She became the first Black American woman admitted into NASA’s astronaut program, and the first Black woman to travel to space in 1987.
- Gladys West: Finally, we look at the inventor of GPS: Gladys West. She is a mathematician, formerly working in the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory, where she collected and processed data from satellites to help pinpoint their exact locations in space. At Privateer, Gladys’ work has greatly informed Wayfinder, where we’re able to provide an assessment and prediction of the location of satellites and debris in orbit.
While these accomplishments are astounding, this list is non-exhaustive and only scrapes the surface of those who have helped make science and space what it is today. In fact, there are many Black men and women who have contributed greatly to the field, whose stories have yet to be told. I am eternally grateful for their work, allowing Privateer to today enable sustainable growth for the space Renaissance.
Now, as we look forward, it is my hope that the next generation of Black astrodynamicists, scientists, astronauts, pioneers, and space environmentalists carries this legacy forward, and never ceases to be curious.
At Privateer, we believe in the interconnectedness of all things and that in order for humanity to make it through our existential crises, space being one of them, we must have a successful conversation with the environment. Stewardship is our forgotten intergenerational contract. Empathy is what we must successfully recruit in order to enroll humanity into the path of its own survival through attunement.