The Race Of Space
As child in the 1980's, Saturday was a day of youthful escape. Saturday, unlike any other day out of the week allowed your imagination a million miles in any direction without ever leaving your home. Admittingly, in was very hard to watch the poor quality special effects, or lack thereof of the old Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers serial shows of the 1950's. However, they did appeal to the imagination of what the future would be like. Furthermore, many had a soap opera aspect to it. One such adventure was Journey To The Seventh Planet. My dad and I would watch his all time favorite, The Day The Earth Stood Still and he would be in his own world. I just couldn't get into it as much as he did due to it being obviously antiquated. I needed action with massive fireball explosions and laser gun shoot outs, spacecraft dogfights and so forth.
A couple of my favorites were Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Now this one was much more adventurous to watch. It was more modern than the original series with eye candy in the form of Linda Gray. It should've been called, "Disco In Outer Space" because it definitely caressed the late 1970's/early 1980's pop culture and music. Battlestar Galactica resonated with me greatly as well. After all, what else do you expect when the commander is the ultimate patriarch of the west - Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa Ranch ? Second, you had the essential noble space cowboys next door, Dirk Benedict and Hatch. Hatch originally was the cool as a cucumber under fire fire fighter in the epic action drama "Emergency". Dirk Benedict would later become "Face" on the A-Team. They were essentially Top Gun's
What many of these shows did not have, and what the science fiction genre for the most part was void of were black characters. Although Africa is the largest continent in the world, even in outer space, blacks were the minority, if they existed at all. On Battlestar Galactica you did have actor Herbert Jefferson Jr., or Lieutenant Boomer, as well as Colonel Tigh portrayed by actor Terry Carter. Lieutenant Boomer was very scholarly and was an engineer as well as Viper pilot. Although it was science fiction, there had never been a show up until this point that had a black pilot. Not even Star Wars which hit theaters just a year prior to Battlestar Galactica had black pilots. This gave inspiration to kids everywhere.
The Viper was a compact knock off of Star Wars' X-Wing Fighter. However, it was small and fast. as "nimble as a jackrabbit," and can rotate 180 degrees vertically in .35 seconds and could . It accelerates at six to seven G's, or 60 to 70 m/s². The stern comprises the main engines, numerous RCS maneuvering jets, fuel tanks, wings and vertical stabilizer. The wings themselves contain the kinetic energy weapons, their munitions storage and feeds. Mounting points beneath the wings allow missiles, munitions pods and other items to be rack-mounted. The wing's roots contain the main landing gear, retracted during flight. The Mark II's shape is distinctive because of the offset "intakes" mounted just behind the cockpit. The port / starboard "intakes" incorporate small but powerful reverse thrust engines that can quickly counter a Viper's forward momentum in an emergency
Colonel Tigh was the second in command. His demeanor reflected that as the noble and all wise elder. His stern facial expressions resembled that of a father whose glaring eyes struck fear in a child's eyes without a word being said. One could tell that he was a strategic chess or poker player, rich with knowledge and wisdom. Between his manuerisms, demeanor, and the way he spoke, he was the ultimate officer, leader, and patriarch. It would have been great to have him as a college dean or law school and international business professor. He was what someone would want as a father. No other black character on television resembled him. He was General Colin Powell, before General Colin Powell.
In my area, Sunday was home to the syndicated 1960's Star Trek. Even as a child I could draw from the concept of nations united for the common cause of space exploration and colonization for the further development of man. Yes there were strange planets, inhabited by strange beings, some with superior technology, while others were seemingly inferior. Some were willing to coexist peacefully, while others chose to be hostile. As I grew older I would learn that the premises of the story centered around the Space Race between the former Soviet Union and the United States, while in the midst of the turbulent 1960's which involved an unpopular war in Southeast Asia, the Cold War, and racial tensions in America. Did we have more in common than differences ? Could racially diverse societies, with religious differences, linguistic differences, political, and philosophical differences coexists peacefully while compelling man to "Boldly go where no man has ever gone before" ? I enjoyed the diverse story lines. My favorite episode to this day is Captain Kirk vs. Gorn. The costume designers on many of these movie and television shows apparently got the job because they were related to the director or producer or perhaps some Hollywood studio executive.
Gorn was basically a man in a rubber green costume that resembled an iguana, whose eyes and mouth never moved, despite having an obviously full set of razor sharp teeth. What the epic fight scene revealed is that often times, brains overpowers brute and brawn. Captain Kirk used science, math, and psychology to defeat muscle. In this case, the good guy and smart guy won, and won first. But overall, the show dealt with social and political themes that still resonate to this day. Is it possible for dozens, maybe even hundreds of different species to coexist in the universe cohesively ? Star Trek initially was that type of show. Then there was a galactic shift in the universe - Star Wars.
Star Wars contained all of the ingredients of a fan favorite film. It was part spaghetti western, romance novel, action complete with fairy tale princess, mystical Merlin type wizard, rogue swashbuckling pirate, an evil war lord seeking to make life miserable for the whole universe, robots, and a local yokel who in the end, finds out he's not really a local yokel. Star Wars single handedly changed the way science fiction movies were made, and for the first time, a space movie looked like a space movie, due to special effects. Just as with Star Trek, the Star Wars universe had numerous alien cultures and planet civilizations. We saw this in the epic cantina scene in the 1977 Episode IV release.
In the cantina, we see an assortment of interstellar beings consisting of pilots, smugglers, gamblers, renegades, and bounty hunters. One thing noticebly missing were black people. It may not have been for racism because after all, the droids were not welcomed there either and were asked to leave. Shortly thereafter, Luke Skywalker was told that he wasn't liked. We then see Obi Wan Kenobi wield his light saber and cut off a belligerent's arm. Ultimately what we see is that even in space, there are prejudices. In the next episode, "The Empire Strikes Back", we then see the ultimate king of cool, the duke of debonair - Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian.
Landonis Balthazar, or "Lando" Calrissian, was a human male smuggler, gambler, and card player who became Baron Administrator of Cloud City and, later, a general in the Rebel Alliance. Born on Socorro, he was the owner of the Millennium Falcon before losing it to Han Solo in a game of sabacc on Numidian Prime. Legendary film critic Roger Egbert once referred to him as the black Clark Gable. His style swooned women opposite of Diana Ross in Lady Sings The Blues and Mohogany. His stylish swagger is what landed him as the smooth talking, mellowed out spokesperson for the iconic malt liquor brand, Colt 45. Styled as a dapper ladies man, he was promoted as the archetype of black male sensuality. His persona carried over as Lando Calrissian who was very fond of capes, finely dressed and had an attraction to the finer things of life. Much of his earnings had been gained through being a skilled cheater at galactic poker, or sabacc amid involvement in other rogue activities and enterprises. He also had a hint of being a ladies man.
Despite being a rogue figure, he did have some redeemable qualities. Although he built a sizable fortune in the underground economy of galactic criminality, or perhaps questionable activities, he did manage to become a legitimate business man by assuming the helm of Cloud City. For the first time on film, especially in the science fiction genre do we see a black person with armed security and enterage, completely in charge of a planetary corporation that was as much as a luxury resort as it was a very lucrative mining operation. The mere elevated engineering feat made it an engineering modern marvel.
Cloud City was a completely man-made tibanna gas mining colony staff hovering over the gas giant Bespin, located in the Anoat sector of the Outer Rim Territories. Under the auspices of Baron Administrator Lando Calrissian, the city attempted to avoid unwanted Imperial attention. Eventually, Imperial forces occupied the station after capturing Han Solo and installed a garrison. However, after the Emperor's apparent death, the Imperial Garrison was abandoned during the Iron Blockade, and the planet was soon liberated.
It was occupied by millions of workers, tourists and support staff. Located in Bespin's Life Zone, the station had no need for airlocks or life support systems, with the atmosphere comprised mostly of oxygen and acceptable levels of gravity and temperature. The station was situated 59,000 kilometers above Bespin's core, while its disk was approximately 16.2 kilometers in diameter. 36,000 repulsor lift engines and tractor beam generators kept the giant city floating above the planet. It contained 392 levels, along with platforms and rooms for residents and visitors. The top 50 levels of the city were used as a luxury resort, renowned for its famous casinos such as Yarith Bespin and Pair O'Dice, while the lower levels housed workers and catered for the mining and processing of tibanna gas. The city had a controlled environment that meant residents did not have to worry about the weather.
Lando Calrissian was an original. He also had his flaws. From his initial scene in the Empire Strikes Back, you get the sense that he has a duplicitous streak. This is confirmed when he turns his long time friend Han Solo, over to Darth Vader and the Imperial storm troopers. This may have been in order to protect the millions of residents of Cloud City. Had he refused Vader initially, the fate of Cloud City would have perhaps been sealed in doom. Even with him striking a deal with Darth Vader, the sinister strong arm of the Emperor Palpatine, Vader renigs on the initial contract and choses instead to leave a garrison of storm troopers in charge of Cloud City, essentially overthrowing Calrissian. He redeems himself by giving up his personal wealth to join the Rebel Alliance and partake in a daring plot and rescue mission to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba The Hutt. He would later be promoted to general and lead the assault on the second death star.
Everyone has a story, and back story to that story. Fans were thrilled to know that a post teen aged Lando Calrissian would be portrayed in the movie Solo. Portrayed by Glover we see the youthful exploits of a young adult Lando and his origins and befriending to Han Solo. This character is perhaps the most chronicled black character in the entire Star Wars universe. Star Wars fans get to see a unique but intricate character who has a role in the Skywalker role and lineage. He is a complex character in that he can be nefarious swindler and at the same time, had redeeming qualities. He also had a keen fashion sense and was perhaps the most stylish and possessed the most swagger of any Star Wars characters. True to Billy Dee Williams' persona, he bought a sense of suave and rugged debonair to the screen. Fans needed to see this character manifest himself in a non-monolith black masculinity. Just as Lando Calrissian was the smoothest brother in the galaxy, and obvious ladies man, Mace Windu was a bad mother.... shut your mouth.
Not since Sir Isaac Hayes has a bald headed black man exacted hot buttered soul and coolness simultaneously. If the theme song to Shaft was an actual person, Mace Windu would be him. Not only was he an elite Jedi, he was on the council. Second only to Master Yoda in terms of wisdom and leadership, his reputation proceeded him. Mace Windu was devoted to the Jedi Order ever since his formative years as a Padawan learner. As a Jedi Master, Mace Windu was both disciplined and steadfast, as well as unwaveringly committed to the doctrine of the Jedi Order. A senior member of the High Council, Windu sought to protect the Order from the corruption and unrest within the Galactic Republic. Holding the Jedi teachings as sacrosanct, Windu was suspicious of anyone he perceived to be a threat to the traditions of the Order. A staunch traditionalist, Windu was long regarded as the great champion of the Jedi Order.
Mace Windu was a highly accomplished and powerful Jedi Master who possessed advanced skills in both lightsaber combat and Force abilities. His abilities included Force-enhanced reflexes and agility as well as superior lightsaber combat skills and the ability to see the future. He was a notable practitioner of Form VII, also known as Vaapad. He was the only known master of Vaapad that did not convert to the dark side. Vaapad was the seventh form of lightsaber combat and considered the most unpredictable or aggressive form. He was a superior combatant, capable of defeating multiple enemies with his unique fighting style. This is how he was able to make short work of the battle droids at the Battle of Geonosis.
In Episode IV A New Hope, we see the first light saber battle. Obi Wan Kenobi was elderly and past his prime. Also, Darth Vader's light saber duelist abilities were hampered by his suit and armor which existed merely to keep him alive. Therefore the light saber battle was dull and short lived, void of action. We see a heightened light saber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. This would be repeated in The Return Of The Jedi. The first time we see the lone Jedi as a type of one man army, showcasing the power of the Force against multiple adversaries was Luke Skywalker vs Jabba the Hutt and his goons at the sarlaac pit. But perhaps one of the greatest Jedi light saber take downs, rivaled only by Obi Wan Kenobi's splitting Darth Maul in half, and Anakin's beheading of Count Dooku, was Mace Windu's decapitating of the bounty hunter, Jango Fett. But what ultimately separates his saber feats is that he was the only Jedi to wield a purple light saber.
Cool under fire as always, Windu simplistically deflects Jango's laser blasts walking towards him in a stride that oozes machismo, and cuts the bounty hunter's head off. You can't but help sympathize with the character for he was killed in front of his son, Boba Fett. However, you still root for Windu because of the bounty hunter's killing of Jedi Knight and his involvement in the overall plot to destroy the Jedi Order. At least in the case of Anakin Skywalker, he wrestled with whether or not to kill an unarmed adversary, despite him being a Sith Lord, because as Anakin put it, "its not the Jedi way". Mace Windu was seemingly void of all emotion.
We see the walk of confidence by Mace Windu as he calmly walks in to Senator Palpatine's chambers to place him under arrest The Senator then draws his hidden saber and makes short work of Jedi Masters Agen Kolar, Saesee Tiin, and Kit Fisto. With steel resolve, Mace Windu never flinches, watching his fellow Jedi cut down in front of him but calmly and methodically deconstructs the evil Sith Lord. He even deflects the Sith Lord Sidious' Force lightening with his purple light saber. What distinguishes Windu from other Jedi that we've seen is his raw emotion and lethality. One can tell that he had absolutely no love, sympathy, nor mercy for the Sith Lord and did not hesitate to attempt to kill the Sith with one deadly strike. Clearly when he fought, he was fighting to kill. He is absolutely a stand out and stand alone character as far as blacks in the science fiction genre. Just as he had his own fighting style, his own distinctive light saber, he was worthy of his own theme music, like a bald Black Moses.
He is by and large the ultimate sci-fi villian. His mere presence on film invoked deep state of fear. Draped and caped in all black, his face bore the resembled that of a skull wearing a WWII Nazi helmet. Basically a galactic monster. His iconic breathing made him the more sinister. But what drove his message home was the authoritative voice of James Earl Jones. So convincing was this character and voice that in the classic scene of Darth Vader Force choking Admiral, many movie goers actually held their breath as well. The character's on camera presence and image, sandwiched between the ruthlessness and voice of the character manifested itself into that of the ultimate dictator akin to real life global figures. A failure to follow orders, especially questioning authority often resulted in on the spot death. He was the imperial enforcer to an often invisible galactic mafia boss - The Supreme Emperor Palpatine.
While the actual dark lord was portrayed by actor, James Earl Jones was the voice. Coupled with the trademarked breathing sound, Darth Vader was the epitome of hell's fury, if not hell itself. From the opening scene we get an idea of his height as wee see the doomed rebel soldier's feet dangling several feet off of the ground as Vader choked him. Then suddenly, the rebel soldier is thrown against the wall, then to the floor as if a tackling dummy or rag doll. His voice not only demanded respect, but it spoke fear and trembling to those subjugated to his authority. Totally unaware of the power of the dark side of the Force. people were subject to his villinous tyranny. His voice reminded people of how powerless they were.
Star Wars creator and director George Luca paid James Earl Jones $7,000 for the role. However, the Darth Vader character since 1977, has gone on to become the most lucrative character in the entire Star Wars saga and franchise. From action figures to t-shirts, alarm clocks to watches for all ages, bed linen, and a host of other items, his character has had the greatest impact on the entire franchise. Darth Vader has become one of the most iconic villains in popular culture ever and The American Film Institute listed him as the third greatest movie villain in cinema history. Although the character's physical appearance is very intimidating and horrifically frightening, the voice is what pierces the viewer's psyche.
In 1977, the New Journal and Guide criticized the movie for the lack of racial diversity by pointing out that "the force of evil is dressed in all black and has the voice of a black man." There truly was a lack of black characters in the 1977 Episode IV release. However, as the saga continued, we see more and more black characters added. Some characters were more celebrated or even demonized than others such as Jar-Jar Binks. However, Darth Vader's character stands alone. Vader's voice is what gives his threatening presence and brutality is his heart and soul or perhaps the lack of one. In all of his scenes, his dialogue is at a minimum. He never gives a real conversation. His conversations are merely his direct orders. His voice is the extension of his overall ruthlessness. Despite the actual character in the suit, because the voice is so convincing, you think that Vader is actually a black person.
As some critics felt that Star Wars was void of racial diversity altogether, the franchise ultimately did include other racial ethnicities along the series of the saga, in both motion picture and animation. Given the fact of the era and decades upon which the science fiction genre was born, its only logical that the presence of blacks and other ethnic minorities would be largely absent. However, Gene Roddenberry was cognizant of the changing times. Due to many in 1960's society being reluctant to address head on, the hot button issues of the times, many that still plague modern day society, e wanted to create a show that would covertly deal with those issues, hidden in the creativity of science fiction and space travel. The United Federation of Planets was to be an intergalactic representation of the United Nations. Despite his noble efforts to cinematically address the social issues of the day, the networks shunned the concept of the show because of his desire to have a racially diverse cast.
At this time, the war in Vietnam was raging along with increasing opposition by Americans. At the same time you had middle America that still harbored resentment towards Korean and Japanese from the Korean War and WWII in the Pacific Theater. Therefore, a leading Asian character such as George Takei would not sit well with many viewers, especially older ones. With the possibility of the Cold War turning into a nuclear holocaust with the Soviets, a leading Russian character was unthinkable to some. But even in the face of someone who reflected a race that was in no fashion a threat to US national security, much of America was not ready for a leading black woman in the form of actress Nichelle Nicholas.
There were a few leading black actresses up to this point. Black actresses such as Dorothy Dandridge, Hattie McDaniel, and Butterfly McQueen made history as best supporting actresses in their legendary roles. Hattie McDaniel would portray "Mammy" in Gone With The Wind which earned her the distinction as the first black actress to win an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. Thelma "Butterfly" McQueen, who also appeared in the same film was cast as "Prissy". Despite the rave reviews her character received in the award winning film, Thelma McQueen did not like the role at all. In the screen play, her character was named and described as, "Prissy", a simple-minded house maid. She felt that such roles were demeaning to blacks and reinforced historical notions of black inferiority. She once stated that, "I didn't mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business. But after I did the same thing over and over, I resented it. I didn't mind being funny, but I didn't like being stupid."
In 1954, Dorothy Dandridge became the first African-American film star to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, which was for her performance in Carmen Jones. She also gained fame in other films such as Bright Road opposite of Harry Belafonte. Her other films such as Island In The Sun, and Tamango did not so so well. These films contained racial stereotypes and sexual overtones, both of which entertained the ideal notions of "the tragic mulatto". The "tragic mulatto" is an archetypical mixed-race person who is assumed to be sad, or even suicidal, because they are unable to fully fit into neither black, nor white society. In Island Of The Sun, Dorothy Dandridge portrayed a local Indian shop clerk who has an interracial love affair with a white man. The film was very controversial for a 1950's society and the script was rewritten numerous times to accommodate the Motion Picture Production Code requirements about interracial relationships. Also there was an extremely intimate loving embrace scene between Dandridge and the lead character.
Although these women made inroads into mainstream cinema regarding blacks, particularly black women, they were denied full access to significant Hollywood roles and positive images. Despite the accolades and awards received by Hattie McDaniels and Dorothy Dandridge, these roles were racially insensitive. Furthermore, these roles were demeaning, and offensive by depicting blacks as inferior, subservient, and possessing an overall trait of ignorance. Positive leading roles for blacks in movies in the 1960's were few. Roles for blacks on television were non-existent. This would change when Star Trek introduced the character Lieutenant Nyota Uhura aboard the USS Enterprise.
Portrayed by actress Nichelle Nichols, Uhura's character was the first of its kind for a black actresses. Among one of the first Black characters to be portrayed in a non-menial role on an American television series, Uhura is a translator and communications officer who specializes in linguistics, cryptography, and philology. For the first time, television viewers are introduced to a leading black female character who is obviously well educated, articulate, poised, elegant, and a vital part of the international crew of the USS Enterprise. A deeper cultural significance was added when her character is named Uhura, which when translated out of the East African language, Swahili, means, "freedom". Her first name, "Nyota", which is also Swahili meant "star". Around the time of Star Trek's television debut, several African countries such as the Swahili speaking East African nation Kenya were gaining their independence from European colonial powers.
The reaction to the character extended far beyond the character herself. Comedian and actress Whoopi Goldberg who later played Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation, described Uhura as a role model for her. She once recalled that she told her family at the time, "I just saw a Black woman on television; and she ain't no maid!" Her character, even in syndicated reruns was cited by many black astronauts, pilots, and STEM profession professionals as their inspiration. Even decades after the cancellation of the original series, NASA employed Nichols as a spokeswoman to encourage minorities, especially women to embark upon a career in aerospace and other STEM fields. On several episodes, she is seen in a few leadership capacities and excursions, but there was room for so much more.
Unsatisfied with the way that her character was being loosely handled by the producers of the show, as well as desiring to pursue his first love, performing on Broadway, she began to seriously consider leaving the show and went public with her sentiments. This did not sit well with many fans, one in particular. Gene Roddenberry arranged for her to meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who stated that he was in deed a huge fan of the show - a "Trekkie". Upon meeting with Dr. King she expressed her desire to leave the show to pursue what she felt were her true performance art passions. Dr. King told her Star Trek was the only program that he allowed his children to watch. This was because there were few shows that had blacks as regular cast members and none that featured blacks beyond domestic servants. He didn't want his children watching television shows that promoted not just black inferiority, but black exclusion. In her autobiography, she wrote that Dr. King told her she couldn’t leave Star Trek because she was a role model for millions of young girls and women – the only African-American on TV in a role worth having.
At the time of Star Trek airing, America was gripped with the tumultuous 60's. Most notably the Civil Rights Movement. Furthermore, the US was engaged in the Space Race which was an extension of the Cold War. America needed heroes and sheroes alike. The fact that the US was now beginning to dominate the Space Race gave the US a sense of national pride. With the success of the Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo missions, the astronaut was now the new darling of America. The problem is they all were the same white male crew cut community.
There were no black astronauts at the time, although there were minor efforts to select one. In June 1967, Major Robert Lawrence successfully completed the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School (Class 66B) at Edwards AFB, California. The same month, he was selected by the USAF as an astronaut in the Air Force's Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) program, thus becoming the country's first black astronaut. At age 32, Lawrence was killed in a plane crash at Edwards AFB on December 8, 1967. He was flying backseat in an F-104 as the instructor pilot for flight test trainee Major Harvey Royer. Had Lawrence lived, he likely would have been among the MOL astronauts who became NASA Astronaut Group 7 after MOL's cancellation, all of whom flew on the Space Shuttle.
In the early 1960's then President John F. Kennedy wanted to see a back astronaut. So in 1962, the Kennedy administration named Captain Ed Dwight, an Air Force pilot at the time, as the first African American astronaut trainee. JFK had done so at the urging of broadcast journalist Edward Murrow whom he'd appointed as the head of the United States Information Agency, and tasked with strengthening the country's image abroad. Edward Murrow's proposal to NASA to put the first man of color in space was his diplomatic appeal to the "non-white world," majority. Murrow wrote to NASA's administrator. "Why don't we put the first non-white man in space? If your boys were to enroll and train a qualified Negro and then fly him in whatever vehicle is available, we could retell our whole space effort to the whole non-white world, which is most of it."
Given what was at stake, the USSR besting the United States in the midst of the Cold War, thus militarily gaining a strategic upper hand, there were those who still were reluctant to see a black astronaut gain the prestige of the greatest American hero at the moment - The American astronaut. With the Soviet Union looking to gain favor in Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, the US was having to show that it was not hostile towards blacks and other non white ethnicities. Therefore the White House began to aggressive search throughout the US Armed Forces for black candidates who met the initial criteria. Although it had been twenty years since the famed Tuskegee Airmen made history, blacks were underrepresented in the aviation community. The numbers of black military pilots was still significantly small given the discriminatory practices for selecting black pilots. The aviator was the romanticized figure and there were those that did not want to see such honor extended to blacks.
The golden child had been found in then Lieutenant Dwight. He was a cum laude graduate with an aeronautics degree from Arizona State University, and he held the required flight time and performance ratings. John F. Kennedy was Dwight's main proponent and advocate. When JFK was assassinated, Dwight was scrapped from the program. Had he been allowed to remain at NASA, it is likely that he would have flown as a part of the Apollo program.
The distinguished accomplishments but yet unfortunate circumstances of Air Force officers Lawrence and Dwight unfolded at a time when Uhura was the face of not just what could have been, but what should have been. However, what was transpiring behind closed doors ? What was seen were astronauts, the ultimate hero. What wasn't seen were the thousands of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians who enabled the astronaut to be an astronaut. In 1940, the earliest year for which reliable information about the racial composition of individual occupations is available, there were approximately four thou-sand black physicians, and three hundred black engineers in the US. After former President Lyndon Johnson passed federal education legislation allocating millions of dollars in student loans, grants, the flood gates were opened for record number of blacks to attend college who ordinarily would not have been able to attend. In 1970, there were three times as many black engineers than in 1940 which proves that if academically cultivated and given the opportunity, a person can achieve. Between 1970 and 1997 black representation engineering roughly doubled.
In 1971, two Purdue undergraduates, Edward Barnette and Fred Cooper founded the Black Society of Engineers (BSE) with faculty advisor Arthur J. Bond. The BSE was founded in response to the 80% drop out rate of Black freshmen in engineering programs in the 1960s. The name was changed to The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) in 1975. It is one of the largest student-run organizations in the United States, with core activities centered on improving the recruitment and retention of Black and other minority engineers in both academia and industry.
There were a host of reasons behind an 80% drop out rate for black engineering students. NASA realized that in order to maintain its competitive edge, it would have to invest in its talent pool. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, a Texas southerner, believed that the root of racial injustice was southern poverty. He further believed that one way to achieve racial integration was job creation and growth. NASA created a contractors’ group in Huntsville, Alabama that used its money and influence to ensure that sure African-Americans got space jobs. NASA then hired Charlie Smoot, to recruit black scientists and engineers to come to the south. The Marshall Space Flight Center invited representatives of Alabama A&M and other historically black colleges to Huntsville in 1963, and a year later opened the agency’s college cooperative education program, in which students alternated semesters at school with semesters at Marshall to blacks.
After Kennedy placed Johnson at the head of both his National Aeronautics and Space Council and the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, NASA had already been under strong criticism for its rather slow efforts to attract top tier technological talent. There were however, numerous trailblazers during the pioneering days of NASA and the Space Race. Because of this program, Walter Applewhite, Wesley Carter, George Bourda, Tommy Dubone, William Winfield, Frank C. Williams Jr., and Morgan Watson arrived at Marshall Center in Huntsville, Alabama to become the embodiment of Johnson’s plan for employing blacks in aerospace jobs in the South. While these men were making inroads, so were another group of trailblazing blacks.
Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan experienced both overt as well as benign racism as they attempted to share their scientific expertise in helping the Mercury 7 astronauts successfully launch, orbit, and return to Earth. In 2016, the motion picture Hidden Figures was released which was a Hollywood depiction of the trials and triumphs of these women who were African American mathematical geniuses for NASA.
After Hidden Figures was released on December 25, 2016, certain charities, institutions and independent businesses who regard the film as relevant to the cause of improving youth awareness in education and careers in the (STEM) fields, organized free screenings of the film in order to spread the message of the film's subject matter. A collaboration between Western New York STEM Hub, AT&T and the Girl Scouts of the USA allowed more than 200 Buffalo Public School students, Girl Scouts and teachers to see the film. WBFO's Senior Reporter Eileen Buckley stated the event was designed to help encourage a new generation of women to consider STEM careers. Research indicates that by the year 2020, there will be 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs. Aspiring astronaut Naia Butler-Craig wrote of the film: "I can’t imagine what that would have been like: 16-year-old, impressionable, curious and space-obsessed Naia finding out that Black women had something to do with getting Americans on the moon."
Though the mathematicians are ultimately replaced by electronic computers, Mary obtained her engineering degree and became NASA's first female African-American engineer; Dorothy continued as NASA's first African-American supervisor; Katherine Johnson, accepted by Stafford as a report co-author, went on to calculate the trajectories for the Apollo 11 and Space Shuttle missions. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, NASA dedicated the Langley Research Center's Katherine Johnson Computational Building in her honor.
From the late 1970's until the late 1980's, NASA employed Nichelle Nichols to recruit new astronaut candidates and scientists. Many of these new recruits were women or members of racial and ethnic minorities, including Guion Bluford who became the first African-American astronaut, Sally Ride who became the first female American astronaut, Judith Resnik who died during the launch of the Challenger on January 28, 1986, and Ronald McNair, the second African-American astronaut, and victim of the Challenger explosion and Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to fly the space shuttle.
Decatur, Alabama born and Chicago raised Dr. Mae Carol Jemison, MD 305-0436 served as the science mission specialist on the STS-47 Spacelab J flight, onboard Shuttle Endeavor which launched 12 September1992. Dr. Jemison was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993. She is also a Star Trek fan. While in space, Jemison began each shift by informing Mission Control in Houston that "hailing frequencies were open." she appeared as Lieutenant junior grade Palmer in the Star Trek: The Next Generation sixth season episode "Second Chances" in 1993. "Hailing frequencies were open", was clearly a homage to Lt. Uhura by Dr. Jemison who was a Trekkie, having grown up watching the show as a child.
When contacting a starship or space station the normal command was "open hailing frequencies". A communication frequency or hailing frequency was a frequency in which audio or visual communications were conducted. As the communications officer, "hailing frequencies open" was a classic line by Lt Uhura as she informed the crew and bridge, namely Captain Kirk that communication lines with another planet or spacecraft had been made and that it was possible to begin beaming sequence between the two entities. Her classic line was on par with, "Scotty beam me up", another classic expression on the show.
Dr. Mae Jemison on numerous occasions over the years has cited Star Trek and Nichelle Nichols' character as her inspiration for desiring to be an astronaut and doctor. She was the first real life astronaut to appear in the Star Trek franchise. In 2013, she was a guest speaker at Duke University. Hosted by the African-American Studies Department, the "Race In Space" conference highlighted the astronauts, researchers, artists and authors who have studied the dynamics of race in the context of space travel and study. William Darity, the department chair and co-organizer questioned, "And are we going to reproduce the same dynamics of race and class on this planet?"
A new space race is now underway with Russia and now China as major space powers that are challenging America's dominance daily. With such emerging threats to the US's global dominance whether on land, sea, air, and now space it will take an all hands approach to including all innovative minds, regardless of race an gender to counter this seemingly closing gap. NASA has done a tremendous job at closing the racial gap as well as gender gaps in both astronauts as well as engineers and scientists behind the scenes. In the latter part of 2020, history was made again when Victor Glover served as pilot on the first operational SpaceX Crew Dragon to the International Space Station. The US Naval Aviator Victor Glover is the first Black person in space since Alvin Drew in 2007, the first Black astronaut to fly for SpaceX, and the first to move into the International Space Station for a significantly extended period.
The story of African-American involvement and influence in outer space is an enlightening, informative, academic, and courageous story of those seeking to simply share their superb acumen for the sciences and to further the scientific development of civilization. That same overall story also exposes the follies of a society that failed to acknowledge the wealth of scientific talent that it truly had. This folly is that of skin color. Given the fact that the in the midst of the Space Race with the former Soviet Union, America was batting with the issue of race. Therefore it is fully understandable that race would be an issue in the early days of NASA.
One of the most dynamic forces of galvanizing change is that of popular culture. Within the spectrum of popular culture lies the science fiction genre. All astronauts and scientists will tell of a science fiction film, character, book, or television series that inspired them. Although the astronaut became the face of space travel, the true heart and soul were the tens of thousands of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, both then and now. People tend to be what they see. When the visual stimulus is compatible with natural gifts and talents, and the environ motivate such talents and gifts, the impacts are not just productive, but phenomenal, monumental, and stretch across generations. The current NEXTGEN, be they students of STEM, current military aviators, or employed in STEM professions, may have not been born around the time of iconic science fiction films and characters. However, these characters and films still have cross generational and cross cultural impacts. Every year, thousands of children and youth sojourn to Huntsville, Alabama's Space Camp and Aviation Challenge. Most tell of being fans of a particular science fiction film or series.
Currently, a new space race is developing. Unlike the space race of the 1960's, there are more participants from emerging space powers and more potential near-peer adversaries, namely China. Therefore, discriminatory beliefs and practices based on race, ethnicity, and gender can no longer have sanctuary among this nation's space communities, be it the military, and NASA, as well as civilian/commercial space companies. What is necessary is the full investment into space exploration and development by creating first and foremost, an educational system, that enables students from all walks to be assets to STEM capabilities.
Popular culture, science fiction, comic books, pulp fiction novels, super heroes, and animations have always provoked thought and imaginations. Often times, what is science fiction today is a reality tomorrow. The flip phone once used by Star Trek crew members eventually became standard in cell phone technology in the mid-1990's. Dick Tracy's watch phone is now the Apple watch. Drones, GPS, autonomous vehicles, and Alexa (with a male voice) were once science fiction technology in K.I.T.T. on Knight Rider in the mid-1980's. Even now the Mars rover was once science fiction technology. Now that the Chinese have recently landed one there, probing the geography of Mars is now on its way to becoming common place.
One hundred years from now, children will watch Star Trek and Star Wars, as well as other science fiction shows and will be inspired to further the advancement of science and technology in order to improve the quality of their civilization. The characters, themes, story lines, and objectives of the science fiction genre will always be relevant. It reflects the ongoing struggle to coexist peacefully in a much wider society where alien life forms, mysterious planets, and advanced/primitive civilizations often clashed or chose to diplomatically dialogue. These characters speak to humanity because they are but small links in a much bigger and longer chain. Live long and prosper, and May the 4th Be With You