A few weeks ago, Hidden Figures, the story about African-American women who helped get Apollo astronauts to the Moon, was overtaking and holding the box office lead. This real-life story of Black history in the Space Age supplanted the science fiction space adventure Rogue One and is holding its own, which should be no surprise. But the story and its success is a surprise. Hidden Figures revealed a part of NASA history that had been left out of the story we usually tell about the Space Age. Space exploration has been about people as well as about machines, and Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson didn’t make it into the history books until recently. History books got that wrong, until now.
At the same time this film was telling this eye-opening story of Black history, the Huffington Post, Yahoo!, Economic Times, and others ran stories about the first African-American International Space Station crew member, who is scheduled to launch for an extended stint aboard the station in 2018. These and other media outlets claimed that Jeanette Epps will be the first African-American sent to the space station or to board ISS.
The media got that wrong.
This is probably due to a misunderstanding about how ISS crew rotation works. Reporters, likely unfamiliar with space exploration, probably didn't bother to look carefully at the announcement on NASA's website, or didn't understand the difference between an Expedition crew aboard the space station and a Soyuz or Shuttle crew going to the space station. The shuttle flew to the International Space Station (ISS) for years, carrying astronauts back and forth on short missions of a week or two to deliver supplies or to help with repairs. Some members of those shuttle crews joined a space station crew to stay aboard for longer stints. These longer-term Expedition crews were formed in a carefully orchestrated scheduled of overlaps and swap-outs that’s been going on since November 2, 2000.
Just as many of us are surprised to know that African-American women mathematicians were calculating spacecraft trajectories fifty years ago, we might mistakenly assume that African-Americans have not been actively contributing to space exploration as astronauts these last thirty years. Epps will fly up as part of a Soyuz crew and remain as part of an Expedition crew, and that is a terrific first. But she won’t be the first African-American to float through the hatch into ISS.
African-American astronaut Stephanie Wilson flew to and boarded ISS three separate times over four years. In 2007, Wilson was part of the STS-120 shuttle crew that also included Daniel Tani. She returned to Earth Mark Hamill’s light saber from Star Wars, which had been carried aboard for the film’s thirtieth anniversary. Tani, on the other hand, became part of the space station’s sixteenth Expedition. He stayed on orbit almost four months and had no way to return home to be with his family when his mother died. That’s among the risks Epps will face in 2018: the inability to return home any time soon.
To be sure, all the humans who went to the moon were white men. Even in the early days of America’s space programs, however, Ed Dwight was picked as an astronaut candidate. He faced harsh racism and, after the assassination of President Kennedy, decided not to join the astronaut corps. Though he never flew to space either, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. became the first Black astronaut in 1967, when he joined the Manned Orbital Laboratory program, a sort of spy-in-the-sky idea. By the time that program was cancelled and some of its astronauts switched to NASA, Lawrence had died when his ejection seat malfunctioned during an aborted test flight of a supersonic aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base.
In the wake of these small first steps, the astronaut group chosen in 1978 became the giant leap forward for NASA that shaped the space shuttle crews and future astronaut selection for decades to come. As NASA moved toward the first shuttle launch, this class included six women, an Asian-American man, and three African-American men: Guion Bluford Jr., Ronald McNair, and Frederick Gregory. In 1983, on the eighth shuttle mission, Bluford became the first of these three to travel beyond Earth’s atmosphere. He went on to fly four more missions.
But the first Black person to travel to space wasn’t Bluford. A Cuban of African descent had done that aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft three years earlier. Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez was part of the Intercosmos program. He flew to Salyut 6 in 1980, where he and his fellow cosmonaut conducted experiments on the causes of space sickness and also on sucrose crystallization in low gravity in hopes of improving Cuba’s sugar industry.
From that more inclusive NASA astronaut class of the late 1970s, McNair flew aboard the shuttle twice. He died on his second flight, on January 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger broke apart as the nation watched on television. Gregory watched the tragedy unfold from Mission Control, for he was the astronaut on the ground keeping track of the weather that morning. McNair left an amazing legacy in a scholarship program that helps prepare first-generation and traditionally underrepresented undergraduate students for doctoral study.
In 1989, Gregory, a pilot, became the first African-American to command a spaceflight. That was his second of three missions. The increasing inclusivity of NASA’s astronaut corps, in fact, has made it an eclectic, incredibly agile group that adapted to the changing role of the space shuttle and continues to adapt to Soyuz missions and planned exploration to Mars.
The first African-American woman to travel to space was not Epps or even Wilson but, rather, Mae Jemison. Jemison, a physician, served in the Peace Corps before she joined the astronaut corps in 1987. She applied to be an astronaut after she saw Sally Ride become the first American woman in space. Jemison names Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura on Star Trek, as her role model, for Uhura was the African-American woman spacefarer with whom many of us grew up. During that flight, she honored Uhura by starting each of her work shifts by saying, “Hailing frequencies open.” The 25th anniversary of Jemison’s flight aboard Endeavour occurs this year.
Several African-American astronauts have visited the space station. Robert Curbeam was the first, in 2001, and Alvin Drew was the last to fly there aboard shuttle, on Discovery’s last mission in 2011. During that flight, he performed a spacewalk. Though he was the two-hundredth person to do that, he wasn’t the first African-American. That first belongs to Bernard Harris Jr., who walked in space back in 1995. Curbeam, in fact, made seven spacewalks over his NASA career, the most of any African-American.
All of NASA, in fact, was headed up by an African-American astronaut. Charlie Bolden traveled to space four times before becoming NASA Administrator in 2009 and serving through the end of President Obama’s administration.
The International Space Station has been continuously inhabited for more than sixteen years. Currently, six astronauts are circling overhead, onboard ISS as members of the Expedition 50 crew. Their earthly homes are Russia (three), the United States (two), and France (one), making this very much an international space station. Those of us on the planet’s surface can check to see what the crew has planned for every day they are on station. We can also see ISS traverse the night sky with your own eyes, with instructions from NASA’s Spot The Station website.
To mistakenly think that Jeanette Epps would be the first African-American to visit the station shows a lack of understanding of the long-standing contributions of African-Americans to our nation’s achievements. To understand that Epps will be the first African-American to be part of an Expedition crew is to celebrate her achievement as part of the rich, ongoing history of this country in the largest sense and of spacefaring and ISS in particular. Her planned mission signals that firsts still remain to be achieved and that there’s no reason to think that a crew to Mars shouldn’t be inclusive and stronger for it. So, mark your calendar for May 2018, when Epps will be onboard ISS, zooming across the heavens inside that spark of light.