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Monday, August 13, 2012

NASA and the Legacy of Eminent Black Scientists and Engineers

This summer marks another milestone in NASA’s Mars exploration efforts: the landing of the Curiosity Rover. Space craft, space stations, and the astronauts who operate and populate them are the newsflash and news splash people love to read about. Astronauts Mae Jemison, Michael Anderson, Frederick Gregory, Ronald McNair have thrilled many a school child with dreams of space.  The forerunners of these astronauts are the black aviators, whose courage and daring can be read about in these two books by Von Hardesty.
from the book Black Wings
But, none of this would have been possible without the years of dedication, experimentation, and problem-solving by the ‘worker bee brains’ behind the public face of NASA. 

Several years ago, Mae Jemison narrated an audio documentary called Race and the Space Race (the link takes you to the transcript, but you can listen to it by clicking on the title) produced by Richard Paul as part of a larger project called Cape Cosmos: be sure to explore the personal interviews within that site of many of the people mentioned below. A download of those documents may be found here. Jemison explains that the Space Age and the Civil Rights Movement became entwined when NASA chose to “base itself in the heart of the Old Confederacy”, Houston, Huntsville, Cape Canaveral, and therefore became a mirror of social change in America. 

Dr. George Carruthers
The key players in this story who broke the color barrier are Julius Montgomery (the second African American hired at Cape Canaveral and who was involved in building circuits and dealing with missiles and rockets that misfired), Otis King, Theodis Ray, Dr. Frank Crossley, Morgan Watson.  Interviews with Morgan Watson (the first African American engineer at NASA, who worked on heat transfer in rocket engines and helped design the heat shield that protected the liquified oxygen fuel from the heat of the escaping gases) and George Carruthers (who invented the first ultraviolet camera) can be heard and seen here, just click on the Interview tab. Jemison’s conversations with these scientists and engineers covers how they were recruited, the obstacles to promotion they faced, the initial social isolation, and the learning curve both they and NASA had to tackle to make the program and their involvement work. One of the ‘duh/light bulb’ moments occurred when one of the NASA administrators tried to understand why the African American scientists never attended the career development workshops. These seminars were held in hotel conference rooms, these hotels were segregated!
Mary Winton Jackson,1921-2005
Other prominent scientists were Emmett Chappelle (information about his inventions and his NASA career can be found at the linked words); Shelby Jacobs; and Mary Winston Jackson, an early "computer" at NASA, as women mathematicians were called in the 1960s.

And the next frontier? The obvious segue here is to go from someone whose mathematical skills were such that she was called a computer to those pioneering African Americans who are working as software engineers with computers. The torch has been literally passed from Mary Jackson to Trish Millines Dziko first African American woman employed at Microsoft as a software engineer. But, that is a post for another time: stay tuned!

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