Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) and Dr. Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor)

Credit: 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

How African-Americans at NASA helped remake the segregated South

When the science fiction thriller The Martian opens in theaters on 2 October, audiences will see two African-American members of a NASA team make key contributions to a daring attempt at an interplanetary rescue. These fictitious space heroes follow in the footsteps of generations of African-American astronauts, scientists, engineers, technicians, and others who have made real-life contributions to the U.S. space program.

Today, attracting more African-Americans to scientific and technical careers is a high priority for educators, employers, and scientific policymakers. Reasons include the benefits diversity offers for fostering innovation and making maximum use of the nation’s talent. But 50 years ago, when the space program was new and America was gearing up to attempt the technical triumph of sending men to the moon, national leaders saw much broader and more powerful reasons for hiring African-American scientific and technical workers. As chronicled in We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program, a book published in May, top government officials expected NASA’s moonshot to break barriers not only in space, but also here on Earth.

Top government officials expected NASA’s moonshot to break barriers not only in space, but also here on Earth.

—Beryl Lieff Benderly

Specifically, explain authors Richard Paul and Steven Moss, then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and others viewed the space program—and the African-Americans who would work for it—as part of a plan to end segregation and modernize the South. The book tells the complex story of how a prestigious and well-funded federal agency with its major facilities in some of the nation’s poorest and most segregated states—Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas—endeavored to bring African-Americans into technical, professional, and other white-collar jobs that were new to the region and, until then, considered by some Southerners to be suitable only for whites.

Dual goals

The space program and the civil rights movement were two defining elements of the 1960s. Until this book, however, any connection between them has received little attention. As the authors note, at the time and in the decades since, the two campaigns have generally been considered quite distinct, irrelevant to one another, and, according to some opinions, even at cross purposes, as the space program consumed resources that some believed could have been better spent on improving the lives of the poor. For Johnson, however, the link was obvious and, as the chair of both the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and the National Aeronautics Space Council when President John F. Kennedy initiated the space program, and then as president in his own right, Johnson had the power and opportunity to act on that understanding.

President Kennedy did not initially see the moonshot as a vehicle for social and racial change. On 25 May 1961, spurred by Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, which appeared to be winning the space race, and by a need to distract the nation’s attention from the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion only weeks before, Kennedy gave a speech proposing “that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Johnson, watching over Kennedy's shoulder during the moonshot speech, believed that the space program could also fulfill his own long-held goal of bringing social and economic change—specifically, an end to racial segregation and agriculturally-based poverty—to his native South, the nation’s poorest region. “Johnson thought that the roots of injustice in the region had grown thick in the soil of southern poverty,” the authors write. “Hatred and discrimination persisted because people were all fighting over the same economic pie. Fix the economy, Johnson believed, and segregation would crumble away.” 

Despite the promise of futuristic space age progress, the Southern states remained locked in the system of racial segregation that had long been encoded in state legislation and enforced by often brutal violence. Jim Crow laws forbade mixing of white and black people on any basis suggesting equality and required separate educational and public facilities of all kinds. The civil rights movement had been fighting segregation for years. Just weeks before Kennedy’s speech, savage attacks and arrests of a racially mixed group of Freedom Riders traveling into the Deep South by interstate bus had filled the nation’s newspapers and broadcasts. 

Johnson saw the task of bringing social and economic change as beyond the power of the private sector because the region’s low-wage economy encouraged business interests to keep “their workers—both black and white—languishing in ill health, hunger and ignorance,” the authors write. “Bringing in the full force of federal power was the only way Johnson saw of integrating the South into the mainstream of America’s economic life.” To advance, the region needed well-paying jobs, like those the moonshot could provide, that would require and attract educated and skilled workers. Making sure African-Americans got a share of them would raise both their economic and social standing. 

NASA succeeded in attracting African-American participants to the space program as workers both for NASA and for contractors and other entities involved in the project, doing jobs ranging from relatively routine technical tasks to high-level research and engineering. The overall social and economic results fell short of Johnson’s ambitious goals, but the push to find, hire, or develop qualified African-Americans had valuable and wide-ranging effects on many individuals, on NASA’s scientific and technical results, and on life in communities surrounding NASA’s facilities in Houston, Texas; Brevard County, Florida; and, especially, Huntsville, Alabama, where NASA and its contractors formed a dominating economic presence in the city. 

By maintaining integrated facilities and enforcing policies such as forbidding employees or contractors to participate in conferences where African-Americans were excluded, NASA forced integration of a number of public facilities, including hotels, conference centers, and the University of Alabama’s Huntsville campus. Among NASA’s major advocates of racial equality for the descendants of African slaves, was, ironically, Wernher von Braun, head of the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Hunstville. During World War II, the German-born von Braun had headed the Nazi government team that, using slave labor, developed and built the V2 flying bomb, Hitler’s terror weapon that devastated London.

Moonshot pioneers

The first African-American “hired as anything other than a janitor” at Cape Canaveral was electronics technician Julius Montgomery, the authors write. Montgomery was soon instrumental in the founding, survival, and racial integration of Florida Institute of Technology, which began as a night school for NASA workers and is now a well-regarded university that annually presents the Julius Montgomery Pioneer Award. Frank Crossley, the first African-American to obtain a Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering, worked for a NASA contractor and developed titanium alloys important for space vehicles and attained seven patents. 

Charles Smoot left a job teaching chemistry in a segregated high school and traveled the country recruiting black engineers and scientists for NASA—a challenging task given their understandable skepticism about moving to NASA’s locations in the Deep South. To provide a supply of talent, Smoot helped organize a co-op program at Southern University, Baton Rouge, that brought to NASA the first African-American engineers it employed in the South. Clyde Foster, on loan from the space agency to all-black Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University in Huntsville, established the state’s first degree program in computer science, a curriculum that fed a stream of graduates into MSFC. Numerous other individuals contributed in various capacities both to the successful moonshot and to social and cultural change in the communities where they worked.

Overall, the authors write, the space program achieved “at least part of the change Johnson and others were looking for. The federal government’s presence created jobs, and many of those jobs went to African Americans.” Herbert Northrop, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who examined NASA’s employment of blacks, “discovered that in the Southeast in 1968, major aerospace companies had opened facilities and ‘partially because they have practiced equal employment, and partially under federal government prodding, they have changed employment practices in the region in a major manner.’ … These aerospace companies ‘have done much more in this regard than many other industries.’”

Beyond that, the pioneering African-American space program workers opened the way for many others, including Robert Lawrence, the first black astronaut, who died in a plane crash before getting into space; Guion Bluford, Jr., the first African-American sent into space; Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to attain that distinction; and Charles Bolden, an astronaut who is the agency’s first African-American administrator. The changes that NASA made came with a lot of “screamin’ and hollerin’,” recalled Smoot, as quoted in the book. “At the time, it was not easy for them. NASA did a lot of good.” But he added, “[t]hey could have done better.” 

Nonetheless, the authors write, “the plan put in place by Kennedy and Johnson caused the federal government to hire African-American men and women throughout the South during the turmoil of the 1960s.” In addition to those the authors interviewed, numerous other African-American space program pioneers “also helped break the walls down and change the perception of black people in the South.”

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