Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Space Shuttle Program Made Black History As Well

The Space Shuttle program concluded with Atlantis touching down at the Kennedy Space Center earlier this morning in Florida at 5:56 AM EDT to cap a successful STS-135 mission and close out its 30 year run.

During that time 355 individuals from 16 countries flew 852 times on the five shuttles, traveled over 542 million miles, over 20,000 earth orbits and a lot of historical firsts.

We African Americans also played major roles in shaping this part of America's spacefaring history.

In addition to the people who worked in the ground support roles, Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols worked for NASA, helped recruit some of the first class of African American astronauts and lead the charge to get more African American kids interested in science, engineering and math careers.  

There were 20 African American astronauts, and out of the 355 individuals that flew on the various shuttles, 14 of those African American astronauts got to fly into space. We witnessed much African American history being made as the result of those shuttle flights.      

During the launch of the STS-8 mission aboard Challenger the first African American in space, Dr. Guion Bluford on August 30, 1983.  It was the first of his four trips into space, with launches aboard STS-8, STS-61-A in October-November 1985, STS-39 in April-May 1991 and STS-53 in December 1992. 

Bluford however wasn't the first African descended person to go into space. That honor went to Cuba's Arnoldo Tamayo Mendez on September 18, 1980.

Dr. Mae C. Jemison became the first African American woman in space as part of the STS-47 crew on September 12, 1992 aboard Endeavour

Frederick D. Gregory became the first African American to command a shuttle flight when Discovery blasted off on November 23, 1989 on the STS-33 mission.  He was also the first to pilot a shuttle when Challenger took off during the STS 51-B mission on April 29, 1985.

Gregory was the deputy administrator of NASA from 2002-2005 and became interim director of NASA covering the period when Sean O'Keefe resigned on February 20, 2005 to Michael Griffin's April 14, 2005 swearing in.

Gen. Charles Bolden was the second African-American astronaut to pilot a shuttle and the first to command a shuttle mission.  He piloted the Columbia during the January 1986 STS-61C mission and Discovery during the STS-31 mission in April 1990.  He was the commander of the STS-45 mission aboard Atlantis from March 24-April 2, 1992 and STS-60 mission aboard Discovery in February 1994 before he became the current NASA administrator on July 17, 2009.  

The first shuttle mission to launch two African Americans simultaneously into space was STS-116 on December 9, 2006.  Aboard Discovery was Robert Curbeam, Jr on his third fight and Joan Higginbotham on her maiden trip into space. 

That Black history milestone was repeated on November 16, 2009 when STS-129 launched with Dr. Robert Satcher and Leland Melvin aboard.

There have been five African-American astronauts who have performed spacewalks in the history of the shuttle program.  The first was by Bernard Harris when he emerged from Discovery on February 9, 1995 during STS-63 to perform his EVA that lasted 4 hours and 39 minutes. 

Astronaut Winston Scott would perform 3 total spacewalks during his STS-72 and STS-87 missions.   Scott's first spacewalk was a 6 hour and 54 minute one on January 17, 1996 and he performed two during the STS 87 mission.  The first was a 7 hour and 43 minute EVA on November 25, 1997.   The December 3 EVA was 4 hours and 59 minutes in duration. 

Robert Satcher would perform two EVA's during the STS-129 mission on November 19 (6 hours and 37 minutes) and November 23, 2009 (5 hours 42 minutes)

But it was Robert Curbeam, Jr. who would become the hardest working man in the spacewalking business, totaling 7 total EVA's across two of his three shuttle missions..

Curbeam performed the first three during his second mission aboard STS-98.   The first on February 10, 2001 was 7 hours and 34 minutes in duration.   The second EVA on February 12, 2001 was 6 hours and 50 minutes long and the third on February 14 lasted 5 hours and 25 minutes.    

Curbeam was even busier during the December 2006 STS-116 mission.  The first EVA was a 6 hour 26 minute one on December 12, followed up by a 5 hour one on December 14, a 7 hour and 31 minute one on December 16 and a 6 hour and 38 minute EVA on December 18 to make up number seven. .   . 

STS-133 astronaut B. Alvin Drew's March 2, 2011 6 hour and 37 minute EVA during Discovery's last mission has the distinction being the last one performed by an African American astronaut   Drew also holds the distinction of being the 200th human to walk in space when he did so for 6 hours and 14 minutes on February 28, 2011.

African-American women aren't left out of this space shuttle program history making either.  As I mentioned earlier, Mae Jemison was the first of three launched into space in 1992 with her historic flight being followed by a long interval until Stephanie Wilson and Joan Higginbotham were launched a few months apart in July and December 2006.  

And for you sorority sisters keeping score, Dr. Mae Jemison is an AKA while Dr. Joan Higginbotham is a member of Delta Sigma Theta.   For you fellas wanting to know what astronaut belongs to your frat, here it is.   Winston Scott is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha,  Bernard Harris is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi,  and Frederick Gregory and the late Ron McNair are members of Omega Psi Phi. 

But back to the spacefaring ladies for a minute. 

Stephanie Wilson would not only become the second African American woman into space when she was launched on July 4, 2006 aboard Discovery as part of the STS-121 crew, she would go into space two more times as part of the STS-120 mission on October 23, 2007 and STS-131 on April 5, 2010.  

Wilson was also part of the historic April 9, 2010 day when four women, the most ever in space at one time, met on board the International Space Station.   STS-131 was also notable because three women were launched and part of a shuttle flight crew.  .

That history also includes the people we tragically lost.   Dr. Ron McNair flew previously on STS-41-B on February 3, 1984 and was part of the ill fated Challenger crew that perished in January 28, 1986 shortly after liftoff.    

Col Michael P. Anderson flew previously on STS-89 but died when the Columbia broke up over eastern Texas on February 1, 2003 during reentry on the STS-107 mission. 

We'll also remember our first ever African American astronaut, US Air Force Col. Robert H. Lawrence, Jr.   Had he lived, it's possible he could have become a shuttle program astronaut.

He was selected in June 1967 to become part of the Air Force's Manned Orbiting Laboratory program.  Unfortunately he was killed in a December 8, 1967 training accident at Edwards Air Force Base in California..

Because of the increasing technical capabilities of spy satellites, the MOL program became obsolete and was canceled in 1969.   Seven of its 14 selected astronauts were under age 35 and given the option to be transferred to NASA.    Those seven accepted the transfer and every one of those former MOL astronauts flew shuttle missions. 

So it's not a stretch to say that had he lived, Lawrence could have had the distinction of becoming the nation's first African-American astronaut launched into space since he was only 32 at the time of his death.   

Discussing our first African American astronaut is a nice segue into discussing the shuttle program's African American astronauts that didn't get an opportunity to be part of a shuttle mission.  

Livingston Holder was a mission payload specialist who was scheduled for an STS mission aboard the Challenger until it was destroyed in 1986 and that mission was subsequently canceled during the 32 month hiatus to investigate the tragedy. 

Astronauts Michael E. Belt, Dr. Yvonne Cagle (astronaut Class of 1996) and Jeannette J. Epps (selected as an astronaut in June 2009) didn't get to fly any shuttle missions.

It's ironic that the NASA Space Shuttle program went out the way the earlier Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs started and ended with predominately white crews since there were no African American astronauts selected for the final STS-134 and STS-135 missions.  

The contributions of African Americans to the success of the shuttle program, in advancing our scientific knowledge, our spacefaring legacy and being integral parts of it are undeniable facts.

We know that if America ignores the parsimonious  neo-Luddites in the Tea Klux Klan and sees the wisdom of remaining a spacefaring nation, there will be African Americans ready and able to make significant contributions toward helping us to keep reaching for the stars and build on the sterling legacy of African descended shuttle astronauts. .

And as we do so, we'll be writing the next chapters of Black history..

No comments: