African-Americans in Astronomy and Space

Celebrating Black History Month

African-Americans play an important and growing role in astronomy and astrophysics in the U.S., as well as around the world. The contributions of these men and women are paving the way for new generations of scientists, explorers, and citizens to understand our world and the cosmos. Here we focus on a selected set of accomplished astronauts and scientists among the many who have pushed the boundaries of learning and exploration.

Stars in Astronomy

Illustrated portrait of American author, astronomer, and farmer Benjamin Banneker (1731 - 1806), mid to late 18th century.(Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)
Benjamin Banneker. Stock Montage / Contributor/ Archive Photos/ Getty Images

The role of African-American scientists goes back to the earliest days of U.S. history. For example, Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) was heralded as the first black astronomer in the U.S. He began his career as a surveyor and went on to use his knowledge to write almanacs of the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets.

Dr. Arthur Bertram Cuthbert Walker II (1936-2001) was a solar physicist and actively studied the Sun using x-ray and ultraviolet sensors. His methodologies are still used in astrophysics today, and there is an annual award given in his name by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

Dr. Harvey Washington Banks (1923-1979) made history in 1961 when he became the first African-American scientist to earn a doctorate specifically in astronomy. He taught at Howard University and focused much of his research on spectroscopy of distant objects and geodetic measurements.

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson (1958- ) is currently the Frederick Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. He studied at Harvard University, Columbia, and the University of Texas at Austin before doing post-doctoral work at Princeton University. He served as the host of the revamped Cosmos series and has written books about astronomy.

Neil deGrasse Tyson
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astronomer and TV personality. Creative Commons 

Doctor Beth A. Brown (1969-2008) was a NASA astrophysicist who specialized in the study of x-ray emissions from galaxies. She went to work at Goddard Space Flight Center furthering science communications and higher education.

Beth Brown
Dr. Beth A. Brown, NASA Astrophysicist who explored the high-energy universe. She worked at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and also taught at Howard University. NASA

Space Explorers

Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr.
Robert H. Lawrence, first African -American astronaut selected by NASA. NASA

Robert Henry Lawrence (1935-1967) was the first African-American astronaut to be selected by NASA. As a member of the Air Force, he brought a wealth of pilot experience to NASA. However, he died in a flight training accident before he could fly in space.

Guion "Guy" Bluford (1942- ) is the first African-American to fly to space. He studied aerospace engineering and served in the Air Force. As an astronaut, he worked as a mission specialist aboard several flights. He retired from NASA in 1993 and worked as a consultant in aerospace for many years. He holds many awards and decorations for his work.

NASA Astronaut Guion Bluford, Jr.
Astronaut Guion Bluford, Jr. eqadams63/ Earnest Adams/ Flickr

Charles F. Bolden, Jr. (1946- ) Marine aviator, NASA astronaut, and first African-American administrator of NASA. He has served his country in both war and peace and flew several missions for NASA as a pilot and commander aboard space shuttles Columbia, Discovery, and Atlantis.

Charles Bolden
Former astronaut and NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden. NASA 

Dr. Bernard Harris, Jr. (1956- ) is an accomplished physician and former NASA astronaut. He became the first African-American to do a spacewalk. After leaving NASA, Dr. Harris worked in private industry and serves on various boards.

Bernard A. Harris
Dr. Bernard A. Harris, Jr. former NASA astronaut, physician, and business leader. Tom Pierce, CC BY-SA-3.0

Frederick Gregory (1941- ) became the first African-American to pilot a spacecraft when he launched aboard the space shuttle Challenger on April 29, 1985. He served in the Air Force until his astronaut selection in 1978 as a space shuttle astronaut.

Frederick Gregory
Col (ret) Frederick D. Gregory, former NASA astronaut and Deputy Administrator of NASA./. Getty Images

Dr. Mae Jemison (1956- ) is the first African-American woman to go to space. She specialized in medical issues on her flights. She currently teaches and has formed several initiatives for portable medical technology. She also has the distinction of being the first astronaut to ever appear on Star Trek: The Next Generation. She is founder of the 100-Year Starship Project.

Pictures of Mae Jemison - Glovebox Microscope
Mae Jemison using the Glovebox Microscope on orbit. NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (NASA-MSFC)

Doctor Ronald E. McNair (1950-1986) was a NASA astronaut and musician who died aboard the space shuttle Challenger when it exploded on January 28, 1986. He studied at MIT and specialized in laser physics.

Ronald E. McNair
Dr Ronald E. McNair, NASA physicist and astronaut. He died in the Challenger tragedy in 1986. NASA

Michael P. Anderson (1959-2003) served in the U.S. Air Force before joining NASA as an astronaut starting in 1995. He served aboard two major missions, and was killed when space shuttle Columbia broke apart on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere on February 1, 2003.

Michael P. Anderson
Astronaut Michael P. Anderson aboard space shuttle Columbia for mission STS-107. NASA 

Leland Melvin (1964- ) served NASA as astronaut aboard two missions before moving up in the NASA hierarchy to serve as Associated Administrator in 2010. He is also a former pro football player who was part of the Detroit Lions team before reporting to the Dallas Cowboys in 1986. He left football behind to head to space.

Leland D. Melvin
Leland D. Melvin, former NASA astronaut, administrator, and NFL football player.  NASA

Stephanie D. Wilson (1966- ) is an astronaut and the second African-American woman to go to space. She spent 42 days on orbit, the most of any African-American astronaut. She has worked for Martin Marietta in the past, before heading to NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the early 1990s. She joined NASA as an astronaut in 1996 and has flown three missions.

Astronaut Stephanie Wilson.
Astronaut Stephanie Wilson during a training exercise. NASA 

Sources

  • “African American Pioneers in Aviation and Space.” National Air and Space Museum, 1 Mar. 2018, airandspace.si.edu/highlighted-topics/african-american-pioneers-aviation-and-space.
  • Chandler, D.L. “Little Known Black History Fact: Black Astronauts.” Black America Web, 16 Jan. 2017, blackamericaweb.com/2017/01/16/little-known-black-history-fact-black-astronauts/.
  • Dunbar, Brian. “NASA's African-American Astronauts Fact Sheet.” NASA, NASA, 7 Feb. 2012, www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/topnav/materials/listbytype/African_American_Astronauts.html.