There’s much to be said about the notion that Black History Month shouldn’t just be during the month of February, but every month. Certainly, there is no shortage of historical figures that deserve to get their flowers, and that’s difficult to do over the course of 28 (and if we’re lucky, 29) days. There are far too few Black STEM figures from history that have gotten their due in modern history books.
The hit film, “Hidden Figures,” starring Kevin Costner and Taraji P. Henson, gave us a glimpse into how sidelined Black men and women were in the world of rocket science. That’s why these six Black astronauts — some of whom you may have never heard of prior to today — deserve their due, too.
Guion Bluford Jr., Ph.D.
He was the first African American, and the second person of African descent, to go into space. However, according to NASA, Dr. Guion Bluford Jr. got his start in the United States Air Force before becoming an astronaut and even remained in active service while he worked with NASA, going so far as to rise to the rank of colonel in the process. Between 1983 and 1992, Dr. Bluford participated in four space missions and logged almost 700 hours in space throughout his career. After he retired from NASA, Dr. Bluford went on to become the Vice President and General Manager of NYMA. After a subsequent tenure at Northrop Grumman, Dr. Bluford was named President of Aerospace Technology in Cleveland, OH. He was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1997, the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2010, and the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2019.
Frederick D. Gregory
Frederick D. Gregory is the descendent of James Monroe Gregory, a professor of Latin and former dean of Howard University. Frederick was the first African American man to pilot and command a Space Shuttle mission. Gregory’s family was another family of distinction — Francis A. Gregory, his father, was the first Black president of the D.C. Public Library Board of Trustees (He even has a library named after him). Frederick D. Gregory, for his part, was nominated to the Air Force Academy by none other than Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.; after his stint in the Air Force, he went on to NASA in 1978, where he slowly but surely climbed the ranks. Gregory was the acting administrator of NASA from 2002 until 2005. He was inducted into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2004.
The name “Charles Bolden” first came to prominence in 2009, when then-President Barack Obama nominated him to be the NASA administrator, NASA reveals. He was unanimously confirmed by Congress at that time, but there was far more to Bolden than this impressive appointment — which was the first for a Black man. During his 14 years as an astronaut, Charles Bolden logged more than 680 hours in space during four space shuttle missions. He was inducted into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2006.
Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., Ph.D.
He was — and is — Black history in the making. In June of 1967, Robert Henry Lawrence became the first Black astronaut at just 31-years-old. However, he wasn’t just an astronaut. Two years before he became the first Black astronaut in American history, he earned his Ph.D. in chemistry. His doctoral dissertation was titled, “The Mechanism Of The Tritium Beta Ray Induced Exchange Reaction Of Deuterium With Methane and Ethane In The Gas Phase.” He also logged more than 2,500 hours as an Air Force pilot. Tragically, however, Dr. Robert Henry Lawrence died during a flight test in 1967. The 13th Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft, scheduled to launch on Feb. 15, 2021, is named the S.S. Robert H. Lawrence in his honor.
Ronald McNair, Ph.D.
If you’re of a certain age, you remember where you were on Jan. 28, 1986. That day was the day of the horrific Challenger disaster when the spacecraft disintegrated 76 seconds after its takeoff. Before the tragedy that would claim his life, Dr. Ronald McNair logged a total of 191 hours in space. He was also the second Black man to fly in space. Dr. McNair is memorialized in the Forever Remembered exhibit at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
Michael P. Anderson
He was born on Christmas Day, 1959, and Michael P. Anderson lived up to his special birthday. He was the payload commander and lieutenant colonel in charge of science experiments on the Columbia. He logged over 593 hours in space before his untimely death during the Columbia disaster.
Like Dr. McNair, Michael P. Anderson is memorialized in the Forever Remembered exhibit at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.