Far too few Americans are aware that African-Americans have played a significant role in U.S. space programs from the very beginning. Black astronauts have flown shuttle missions and walked in space. Others have played an essential part in development of the many technological advances that have made it possible for this country to lead the way in exploring beyond our planet. While popular media has often portrayed America's space program as the domain of middle-aged white men with crew cuts, the fact is minorities and women have played crucial roles from the very beginning.
The first African-American astronaut was Air force Major Robert J. Lawrence who joined the space program on June 10, 1967. He tragically never got a chance to go into space, having perished in a training flight crash in 1967. The first Black in space was Guion S. Buford, Jr., an Air Force pilot, who became an astronaut in 1979 and during his career amassed a total of 688 hours during four space shuttle missions, his first being on the shuttle Challenger in 1983.
Frederick Gregory, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, became an astronaut in 1985, and commanded the Discovery mission in 1989. He was also mission commander of the Atlantis in 1991. Charles Bolden, a major general in the U.S. Marine Corps, flew two shuttle missions in 1986 and 1990, and was mission commander for Atlantis in 1992 and Discovery in 1994. The first African-American woman in the space program was Mae Jemison, who flew on space shuttle Endeavor in 1992. Dr. Bernard Harris, flight surgeon for Columbia in 1993, became the first African-American to walk in space from the Discovery in 1995. He also served aboard the Soviet Space Station MIR.
African-Americans have also made the supreme sacrifice in pursuit of America's goals in space. In addition to Major Lawrence, Ronald McNair was among the astronauts who perished in the 1986 Challenger explosion over Cape Canaveral.
In addition to the astronauts, African-Americans have contributed to the space program in countless other ways. Tennessee State physicist Robert Shumey designed the moon buggy tires that went on the Apollo 15 mission to the moon in 1972, and George Carruthers, an astronautical engineer built the camera that went to the moon aboard Apollo 16. Mathematician and mechanical engineer Christine Darden has been with NASA since 1966.
In space and on the ground, African-Americans have served and continue to serve.