Space has a diversity problem. Over 90% of NASA’s astronauts are white. Only 4% are black- that’s less than 20 people! Other major space agencies, like CSA, ESA and Roscosmos, are similarly lacking in representation. Thankfully, it is improving, with 25% of NASA’s active astronauts being people of colour. Its a move in the right direction, but not good enough. Representation is so important: A quote that has stuck with me is “You can’t be what you can’t see”. I don’t think this is totally true, as you can grow up to be whatever you set your heart on, but seeing someone who looks like you in the type of job you want to enter gives you a boost of confidence. It shows you that it is possible to break down the barriers set up by society. Improving representation is incredibly important, so here are 10 black astronauts you should now.
Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez was an Afro-cuban astronaut who launched in 1980 with the Soviet Space Program to the Salyut 6 spacecraft. He was the first black astronaut. He was orphaned at a year old, began work at 13, was part of the Cuban Revolution, became a pilot during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and was then selected as a cosmonaut in 1978.
Ed Dwight could have been the first black astronaut, as he was selected to become an Apollo trainee, but ultimately not selected, which he says was due to “racial politics”. He then left the Air Force, and became an engineer, but ultimately a sculptor. His artworks focus on slavery and civil rights.
NASA’s first black astronaut was Guion Bluford. He flew on 4 shuttle missions as a payload specialist.
Mae Jemison was the first African American woman in space. She spent 190 hours orbiting the earth on Space Shuttle Endeavour. After her time at NASA, she founded a tech research company and an educational non-profit!
Bernard Harris– the first African American to do a space walk!
Stephanie Wilson holds the record for the longest time in space by an African American astronaut- nearly 43 days spread over 3 shuttle missions.
Leland Melvin– initially an NFL player, he flew on two shuttle missions, and posed for his official photograph with his two dogs! He is passionate about STEM engagement and was the NASA administrator for Education.
Jeanette Jepps should have become the first black ISS crew member in 2018, but was replaced last minute for unspecified reasons. Last minute crew changes are not uncommon, and she is still in the astronaut corps waiting for assignment. Neither herself or NASA has explained why.
Jessica Watkins– part of the 2017 astronaut cohort. She is a geologist, and worked on asteroid analysis, Curiosity & Perseverance Rovers in association with NASA!
Victor Glover is set to become SpaceX’s next astronaut on the upcoming Crew 1 mission, aka the first official crewed mission of the Crew Dragon! Although black astronauts have visited the spaace station previously, he will become the first ever black ISS crew member.
Did you know of these cool astronauts before? Together, we can all work towards a future where everyone is represented. Additionally, it has been proven that diverse teams are more efficient and creative, so why would we not want to improve this?! Science is inherently political. NASA’s budget depends on the government. Science informs legislation, and society influences science. If you need convincing (or you just want to learn more) I recommend reading Angela Saini’s book ‘Superior’, which explores the history of race science, and how science has been impacted by racial politics.
Read more about diversity in the space industry here:
How Diverse Is Our Solar System? A Look at 7 Decades of Equality in Space Travel