NASA — the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration — is the agency of the U.S. government responsible for the civilian space program as well as aeronautics and aerospace research.
The agency works to understand how quickly the universe is expanding and to accurately predict weather conditions. It even works to learn if there are planets inhabitable by humans other than Earth.
NASA says it selects astronauts from a diverse pool of applicants with a wide variety of backgrounds. It gets thousands of applications for its intensive astronaut candidate training program but only a few are chosen. Just 321 astronauts were selected as of 2012, according to a NASA fact sheet. Of those 321, just 16 are of African descent.
Here are 8 black astronauts who were selected against the odds to go into space.
Guion Bluford was the first African American astronaut in space, and he went on four space shuttle flights during his career. On his four missions, Bluford helped deploy satellites and made observations about the atmosphere and gas releases. Bluford was also a member of the mission that holds the record for the largest crew ever to be on a spacecraft from launch to landing, according to Nmspacemuseum.org.
Frederick D. Gregory was the first African American to pilot and command a space shuttle mission when he led the Discovery mission in 1989. On the Discovery flight, Gregory orbited the earth 79 times in 120 hours. On Gregory’s final mission, he and his team launched the defense support program satellite, says Blackpast.org. Gregory logged over 400 hours in space by the end of his career as an astronaut.
Charles F. Bolden, Jr. is the 12th and current administrator of NASA, nominated by President Barack Obama. Bolden, Jr. spent 14 years working in NASA’s astronaut office and partook in the mission to deploy the Hubble space telescope. Bolden was also on the first ever joint U.S.-Russian shuttle mission. Today Bolden manages NASA’s resources to advance the agency’s missions and goals, according to Nasa.gov.
Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman in space. She was the science mission specialist on the cooperative mission between the U.S. and Japan known as the STS-47. The STS-47 was an eight-day mission that orbited earth 127 times, performing experiments on life science and materials, says Nasa.gov. Jemison has been heavily involved in medicine, having served as the area Peace Corps medical officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa for two years, and working for the Center for Prevention of Childhood Malnutrition.
Bernard A. Harris, Jr. was the first African-American to walk in space. A trained surgeon, he developed in-flight medical devices that have allowed astronauts to stay in space longer. He also conducted experiments on space adaptation, looking into ways humans might survive in space. He was an astronaut for over 19 years, and logged over 438 hours and 7.2 million miles in space, according to Theharrisfoundation.org.
Michael P. Anderson died in the space shuttle Columbia disaster. He had wanted to be an astronaut since he was a young boy, and was accepted into the NASA astronaut training corps after only one application–a rarity for the organization. Anderson’s first space flight was on the Endeavor, which delivered supplies to the Russian Mir spacecraft in 1998. On his Columbia mission, he oversaw more than 80 scientific experiments. The Columbia disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, according to Washington.edu.
Stephanie Wilson is one of the few female black astronauts to go into space. When she was first asked to join the astronaut corps, she did not know how to swim and said in interviews that learning to swim was the hardest part of becoming an astronaut. Wilson applied twice to join the astronaut corps before being accepted. She had to take swimming lessons before becoming an astronaut. Wilson then waited a decade in the corps before launching into space for the first time, says Nasa.gov.
Robert Curbeam is a veteran with seven spacewalks. He has also been on three space shuttle missions and set the record for most spacewalks in a single mission — four. Curbeam did quality control on Patriot missiles and high-flying Raytheon products and today he is the deputy and vice president of space systems at Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems.The company produces technologies that allow for accurate weather data, according to Raytheon.com.