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.
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. 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.
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 “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.
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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 Wang was the first person born in China to fly in space when he flew on STS-51B Challenger in 1985.
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 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 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 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 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
How a ‘Star Trek’ legend and other trailblazers shaped NASA’s future
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