African Americans in Astronomy and Space

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African-Americans have played a huge role in United States history and have had prominent roles in the development of astronomical science and the space program. African-Americans have helped to advance the study of the stars and several have made trips into space.

African-Americans in the field of Astronomy

The first African-American astronomer was a man named Benjamin Banneker. Born November 9, 1731, at the age of 21 Banneker became fascinated with watches and took up watch and clock making as a profession. A man named George Ellicott, who was a neighbor and customer of Banneker's, was so impressed with his intelligence that he gave him books on mathematics and astronomy. With these books he was able to teach himself astronomy as well as advanced mathematics. His study of the stars allowed him to accurately predict both solar and lunar eclipses, outshining the experts in the field. He even sent Thomas Jefferson, the then Secretary of State, a copy of his first almanac, along with his plea of justice for African-Americans.

Harvey Washington Banks became the first African-American to earn a PhD in astronomy in 1961. He later became a research associate and lecture at Georgetown while he was also teaching at both American University and Delaware State College. He spent his time researching determination of orbits, celestial mechanisms, and high dispersion spectroscopy.

African-Americans in Space Exploration

The first African-American astronaut was a man named Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. He was never actually in space, dying at the age of 32 in a starfighter jet crash during a training flight. Lawrence studied chemistry at Bradley University, graduating in 1956. He then went on to earn his PhD in physical chemistry from Ohio State University in 1965. His life was distinguished by his exceptional ability as an Air Force test pilot.

Guion Bluford Jr. was the first African-American to actually enter space. He was born November 22, 1942 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Despite hearing, as most African-Americans of his time did, that he was not college material, Bluford went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in aerospace engineering in 1964. He then attended flight school, earning his wings in 1966. Several years later he went back to school and earned a Master of Science degree focusing on aerospace engineering. In 1978 he earned a PhD in aerospace engineering with a minor in laser physics. That same year he entered the Astronaut Training Program. He officially became an Astronaut in 1979. During his career he served on four shuttle missions for NASA.

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