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Meet the space trailblazers of color who empowered others to dream

By Kristen Rogers, CNN
Published June 11, 2021

By the time Neil Armstrong’s left boot met the moon’s surface in 1969, then-13-year-old Bernard Harris Jr. was hooked.

As a Black boy growing up in the Navajo Nation, Dr. Harris — now a retired NASA astronaut — said he found his passion for space when he admired the stars in the sky above him in that “magical land of grand canyons and painted deserts,” where his mother worked as an educator for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. “And I was inspired when I saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed,” he added. “I said, ‘I want to do that.’”

Harris ultimately did reach similar heights: After earning his medical degree with the intent to — as he put it — “somehow, by hook or crook, find my way to NASA,” he ultimately became one of the 23 NASA astronaut applicants accepted from a pool of nearly 2,000 qualified applicants in 1990. In 1995, Harris became the first African American and Black person of any nationality to walk in space.

In the following audio clip, Harris describes the moment that historic accomplishment really sunk in.

Bernard Harris
Listen
So, when we completed that mission and completed those tasks, we came back and got out of our seats. And about an hour or so later, I got a call from President Clinton to congratulate me on being the first African American to walk in space.... And I would say at that point is really when it hit me – like, ‘Oh, yeah. So, I became this astronaut, became this African American astronaut and now I’m this African American astronaut who has opened a door for people of color behind me.’ Because not only was I the first African American, but the first person of color to do a spacewalk. So, it was just, you know, unimaginably wonderful to know that I could be a part of this history.

Harris is among those who helped pave the way for Artemis, NASA’s diverse astronaut team selected to prepare for future lunar missions — including sending the first woman and the next man to walk on the moon in 2024. This program, established in 2017, will also land the first person of color on the moon, a goal the Biden-Harris administration announced in April.

In the year before the Apollo program’s last mission in 1972, NASA began to focus more on equitable hiring in response to the US civil rights movement and also started to concentrate equal employment efforts at its headquarters, said Brian Odom, NASA’s acting chief historian. The agency brought in Ruth Bates Harris to oversee that process, first as the director of equal employment opportunity, and then as the deputy assistant administrator for the office of equal opportunity programs. A Black woman with a track record of equal opportunity, administrative and human relations roles, Bates Harris reported insufficient inclusion efforts to former NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher in the early 1970s.

Try, try again: Harris’ acceptance into NASA’s 1990 astronaut class was the result of his second time applying.
Try, try again: Harris’ acceptance into NASA’s 1990 astronaut class was the result of his second time applying. NASA

When Fletcher fired Bates Harris in October 1973 for being — as Fletcher claimed in a 1974 memo to NASA employees — inadequately skilled, unwilling to “share the broader problems of management with her peers” and a “seriously disruptive force,” there was a “tremendous outcry,” Odom said. “That’s kind of a turning point.”

Multiple people and organizations — including 70 NASA staffers, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and 50 national organizations — protested Fletcher’s decision, according to educator and historian Kim McQuaid’s 2007 essay on the fight to make NASA more inclusive. These political and legal pressures ultimately led to Bates Harris’ reinstatement in 1974, but with a different position: deputy assistant administrator of public affairs for community and human relations.

NASA slowly began recruiting minority and female astronauts in 1978, guided by the light of a different sort of star: Nichelle Nichols, a Black actress best known for portraying Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the “Star Trek” television series from 1966 to 1969, and in the films from 1979 to 1991.

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The role of Nichelle Nichols in diversifying NASA

Nichols was a key inspiration for Dr. Bernard Harris Jr., who was a fan of the show while growing up. She had wanted to leave “Star Trek” after the first season in 1967 to pursue a Broadway career, but decided to stay when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told her how her work was impacting Black Americans by showing them in non-stereotypical roles.

Pictured is Nichols as Lt. Uhura in the “Star Trek: The Original Series” episode
Pictured is Nichols as Lt. Uhura in the “Star Trek: The Original Series” episode "Arena," which originally aired on January 19, 1967. CBS/Getty Images

“That was greater than anything else, to be told that by Dr. Martin Luther King, because he was my leader,” Nichols told CNN in 2014. “So, I stayed, and I never regretted it.”

As the only Black character on “Star Trek” during the US civil rights movement, Nichols was a vanguard of representation not only on the screen, but also in the space and science fields.

She helped recruit Guion Bluford Jr., the first African American to go to space in 1983. She also recruited Judith Resnik, one of the original set of female astronauts in 1978, and Ronald McNair, the second African American astronaut to fly in space in 1984.

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The iconic results of astronomical change

What Nichols and NASA accomplished together was a watershed for Americans of color dreaming of space careers. But some other countries, such as Russia, sent astronauts and cosmonauts of color to space before the US effort. Below are some notable space pioneers from across the globe.

Phạm Tuân

Phạm Tuân

Tuân was the first Vietnamese person and first person of Asian origin to go to space. Sent by the former Soviet Union, he flew on Soyuz 37, which launched on July 23, 1980.

Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez

Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez

When the former Soviet Union’s Soyuz 38 mission launched on September 18, 1980, Méndez became the first person of African and Cuban descent to fly in space, 15 years before Dr. Bernard Harris Jr.’s spacewalk milestone.

Franklin R. Chang-Díaz

Franklin R. Chang-Díaz

Chang-Díaz became the first Costa Rican astronaut — and NASA’s first Hispanic astronaut — when NASA selected him in 1980. Over seven space flights, Chang-Díaz logged more than 1,600 hours in space — 19 of which were during spacewalks.

Rakesh Sharma

Rakesh Sharma

Sharma was the first Indian citizen in space when aboard Soyuz T-11 (1984). When the nation’s prime minister asked how India looked from space, Sharma replied, “Sare jahan se accha” (the best in the world) — the title of a patriotic song.

Sultan bin Salman Al Saud

Sultan bin Salman Al Saud

Al Saud was the first Arab and first Muslim person in space when he flew on STS-51G Discovery in 1985. Al Saud helped establish the Association of Space Explorers, an international organization for astronauts and cosmonauts who have been in space.

Rodolfo Neri Vela

Rodolfo Neri Vela

Born in Mexico, Neri Vela was the first Mexican person in space as he flew aboard a NASA space shuttle mission in 1985.

Ellison Onizuka

Ellison Onizuka

After being selected for NASA’s 1978 astronaut class, Onizuka became the first Asian American to fly in space while aboard the 1985 Space Shuttle Discovery mission. He died during the 1986 Challenger accident.

Taylor Wang

Taylor Wang

Wang was the first person born in China to fly in space when he flew on STS-51B Challenger in 1985.

Abdul Ahad Mohmand

Abdul Ahad Mohmand

Mohmand became the first Pashtun, first Afghan citizen and fourth Muslim person to fly to space when aboard Soyuz TM-6 in 1988. On this flight, Mohmand was the first cosmonaut to speak Pashto when he called Afghanistan’s president. Mohmand also photographed his country and brewed Afghan tea for crew members.

Dr. Mae Jemison

Dr. Mae Jemison

Traveling aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor on September 12, 1992, Jemison became the first Black (African American) woman in space. On her shuttle flight, she brought along an Alvin Ailey dance poster, a West African statuette and a Michael Jordan jersey.

Ellen Ochoa

Ellen Ochoa

After Ochoa made NASA’s 1990 astronaut class, she became the first female Hispanic astronaut to fly in space when aboard STS-56 in 1993. In 2013, she became the first Hispanic and second female director of the Johnson Space Center.

Dr. Chiaki Mukai

Dr. Chiaki Mukai

Born in Japan, Mukai was the first Japanese woman in space while on the STS-65 mission in 1994. She was also the first Japanese citizen to do two spaceflights.

Koichi Wakata

Koichi Wakata

Wakata, a Japanese astronaut and NASA’s first Japanese mission specialist (1996), has done four NASA space shuttle missions, a Russian Soyuz mission and a long-term stay at the International Space Station. While on Expedition 39 in 2014, Wakata became the first Japanese ISS commander.

Takao Doi

Takao Doi

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (then NASDA) selected Doi for its 1985 astronaut class. On a 1997 NASA mission, Doi became the first Japanese astronaut to walk in space. In 2008, he was the first to throw a boomerang made for microgravity during spaceflights.

Dr. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor

Dr. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor

Shukor, the first Malaysian astronaut, flew to the ISS aboard Soyuz TMA-11 and did experiments to benefit medical research in 2007. Shukor’s flight occurred at the end of Ramadan, so the Islamic National Fatwa Council created the first guidebook for Muslims in space.

Soyeon Yi

Soyeon Yi

Yi became the first person born in South Korea to become an astronaut and fly in space on the Soyuz TMA-12 in 2008. Some of her mission experiments examined plant growth in space and how gravity affected her face. Yi brought kimchi South Korean scientists had made for space consumption.

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Enabling infinite possibilities

It wasn’t until former astronaut Charles Bolden Jr. met Ronald McNair (a Nichols recruit) in person that Bolden believed he could be an astronaut, said Bolden, who is also a former NASA administrator and retired US Marine Corps Major General.

Bolden explains in the following clip why the idea of going to space once seemed so far-fetched.

Charles Bolden
Listen
I grew up in the segregated south and my mental state was there were things I could do and things I could not do. And becoming an astronaut was not something that a young Black kid from South Carolina was ever gonna do. You know, I could be a lawyer, I could be a doctor because there were people in my neighborhood who looked like me who did that. But I didn't know of any — every astronaut — I mean, I had watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon, mesmerized by it. But they were like every other astronaut: They were all about 5’ 10”, 5’ 11”, White military test pilots until the latter parts of the Apollo program.... And so, you know, just the appearance of everybody in the astronaut office said, ‘You're not welcome and you’re not qualified, so don't even think about it.’ So, I never thought about it. NASA picked the first class in 1978, which, for the first time ever included minorities, women. Ron McNair was one of the three Blacks in that class. I met him, spent a weekend just talking to him about the program and I was really just mesmerized by his experiences — but still no desire to get into the program. And before he left to go back to Houston, he asked me if I was going to apply for the space program. I told him, ‘Not on your life.’ And he looked at me real strange and asked me why not. I said, ‘They'd never pick me.’ And he told me that was the dumbest thing he'd ever heard and challenged me: Said, ‘How do you know if you don't ask?’ And he embarrassed me more than anything else. Ron became a role model and a mentor to me and a very, very, very dear friend.

Bolden channeled that embarrassment at not initially believing he could do it into the determination to apply for the astronaut program, he said. Eventually, NASA selected him in 1980 for the second group of space shuttle astronauts. Around 10 minutes into his first space flight, which he piloted, the crew was orbiting Earth when he saw a big island — which turned out to be Africa, he said. “Being of African descent, I had spent a lot of time studying the geography of the planet so I’d be able to try to find, perhaps, one or more of the countries from which my ancestors may have come.”

Here, Bolden describes the experience.

Charles Bolden
Listen
There was just no sign that there were individual countries down there. There was a continent that, at the time, had 52 countries in it, and it all just looked like one big country: Beautiful, mesmerizing and everything, and I literally cried. Because that was the first big lesson was the fact that I'd been taught all my life, that we were different and that, you know, there were borders and boundaries and stuff.... And there I was in real life, and it was not true. And so that was my first — that brought about my first decision that ‘Whenever I get back to Earth, I'm gonna work really hard to try to help other people understand that it's a myth that we’re all different and that borders and boundaries define us.’

He retired as a major general over two decades later. “My wife and I moved back to Houston, Texas, to think about what we wanted to do,” Bolden said. But Bolden’s space ventures didn’t stop there.

“After staying there for six years, (I) got a call from the Obama administration, eventually saying that the President wanted to nominate me to be the NASA administrator,” Bolden said. “I accepted his nomination, came back, and I was confirmed by the Senate and started my what was almost an eight-year tenure as the NASA administrator. … To be working for the first Black President of the United States was absolutely mind-boggling, incredible.”

Other trailblazers of color made an indelible impact on the history of space exploration in different ways.

Jerry Elliott is a former space flight missions operations engineer of Cherokee and Osage heritage. While working at NASA’s Mission Control Center, he was instrumental in calculating the spacecraft trajectory that saved the lives of the Apollo 13 crew and helped them return to Earth in 1970. This feat earned Elliott and his colleagues the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

John Herrington became the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to fly in space when aboard STS-113 in 2002. To honor his heritage, Herrington brought along a few cultural artifacts, including Chickasaw Nation’s flag, during his work as a mission specialist.

In the video below, Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman and Black woman of any nationality in space, explains the significance of the items she brought along with her on the journey.

As a young woman, Jemison’s passion for space stemmed from her love of dancing – that both fields involve exploring, being creative and moving the world forward.

John “Danny” Olivas’ father’s work involved manufacturing components for the aerospace field, Olivas, a Hispanic engineer and former NASA astronaut, said. His father’s contributions, among many other people’s, to human spaceflight made then-7-year-old Olivas want to be “one of the many components that ultimately contributed to doing something as phenomenal as putting human beings in space,” Olivas said.

NASA selected Olivas as an astronaut in its 1998 class, after Olivas had applied annually for nine years while strengthening his qualifications.

Olivas flew and did spacewalks on two space shuttle missions and conducted the first on-orbit repair of a shuttle during a spacewalk.

The first person of Korean ancestry in space was then-astronaut Mark Polansky, who flew on three NASA space shuttle missions in 2001, 2006 and 2009. His mother is from Hawaii and of Korean descent, and his father was Jewish, so Polansky took a teddy bear from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on STS-116.

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Setting the stage for NASA’s Artemis team

NASA’s Artemis team is an initial team of astronauts helping to facilitate future lunar missions. The team includes nine people of color:

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The importance and future of representation

Critical decisions by Nichols and NASA in the 1970s ultimately helped generations of people of color see themselves in space-related and civic-minded careers.

Here, Herrington describes how a November 2015 encounter helped him realize how that legacy of inspiration has continued.

John Herrington
Listen
I was on an elevator in Phoenix, Arizona, and this young lady – young Native lady – she goes, ‘You’re John Herrington.’ Like, that doesn’t happen to me. No one points me out to me. And she says, ‘I met you when I was 12 years old at a Navajo summer camp at Fort Lewis College.’ And I said, ‘I remember that exact summer camp.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, I didn’t realize I could be an engineer until I met you.... And I want to thank you, because now I’m an engineer with the City of San Francisco as a civil engineer.’ And she just thanked me. And I’m like, wow, I didn't realize that, you know, you do have an opportunity to make a difference in the life of somebody if they can see you and identify with you that there’s something they’re capable of doing.

Olivas’ philosophy about human space exploration parallels human progress in terms of race-related barriers and inclusion. “Human exploration of space is less a goal as much as it is a journey,” he told NASA in 2006. “We embarked on this back in the early ‘60s and we have made tremendous progress. We’ve learned a lot; we’ve had a lot of success. We’ve had a few failures, and we’ve learned from our failures.”

While efforts to include people of color among space personnel have progressed, some of these astronauts have expressed, as Polansky does here, that there is still more work to do.

Name TK
Listen
We’re just all astronauts doing something here. We’re not African American astronauts or Asian American astronauts or any other label astronaut; we’re just astronauts. So, I know that right now, at this point in time, it’s important to talk about, you know, ‘You’ve got to have the first woman land on the moon; You’ve got to have... the first person of color do this.’ I know that’s important. But at the same time, I’m really, really looking forward to the day where we don’t have to do that anymore.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated and misattributed the famous line “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” which was said by former NASA astronaut Jim Lovell.

Credits

Editors: Deblina Chakraborty and Katia Hetter

Sound editor: Kristen Rogers

Digital design and development: Tiffany Baker, Gabrielle Smith and Ivory Sherman

Researchers: Megan Marples and Sarah Molano

Images: NASA, Getty Images and Alamy