5 African American Space Pioneers

Written by:

The Hollywood movie “Hidden Figures” highlighted relatively unknown stories of African American women mathematicians at NASA. Many of us are very familiar with several African Americans whom are nationally and internationally celebrated, but throughout history, there are always many others quietly doing great things behind the scenes.

Here are five lesser known African American space pioneers that made important contributions to space exploration!

Dr. Bernard Harris, Jr. was born on June 26, 1956 in Temple, Texas. He received a bachelor of science degree in biology from University of Houston in 1978, a doctorate in medicine from Texas Tech University School of Medicine and a Master’s degree in biomedical science from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in 1966. Dr. Harris became an astronaut in 1991 and became the first African American to walk in space during his mission as the Payload Commander on STS-63 in 1995.

Dr. Mae Jemison is known as the first African American female astronaut and the first African America woman in space aboard the Endeavor in 1992 on mission STS47. Mae Jeminson was born on October 17, 1956 in Decatur, Alabama. In 1987, she became the first African American female to be admitted into NASA’s astronaut training program.  Before this career change, she was a medical doctor who interned at Los Angeles County/University of Southern California as well as a Peace Corps medical officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Dr. Ronald E. McNair, an American physicist and astronaut was born on October 21,1950 in Salt Lake City, South Carolina. He received a bachelor’s degree in physics from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University in 1971 and a doctorate in physics from MIT in 1976. McNair was chosen as a mission specialist by NASA. In 1984 his first spaceflight was on the STS-41B mission of the space shuttle Challenger where he operated the shuttle’s robotic arm to move a platform on which Bruce McCandless (the first astronaut to perform a spacewalk without being tethered to a spacecraft) could stand. In 1985, he was assigned to the STS-5IL on the Challenger and did not survive the explosion after liftoff.

Colonel Frederick D. Gregory became the first African American to pilot a space shuttle when he led the Orbiter Challenger on a 7-day mission in 1985. He was born on January 7, 1941 in Washington D.C. In 1974 he became a research test pilot for NASA and was selected for the astronaut training program in 1978 even though the majority of his background was flying jet fighters and helicopters. Gregory was nominated to be the associate administrator of NASA with over 7,000 hours of flying in time in over 50 types of aircraft.

Dr. Beth A. Brown, astrophysicist, was born in Roanoke, Virginia in 1969. She received a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from Howard University in 1991, was the first African American woman in the graduate program in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Michigan and received her PhD in 1998. During her time at NASA, she worked in fields like astronomy, astrophysics, climate science and additional technologies to assist educators and students in better understanding our galaxy and universe.