Celebrating Black History

My name is Leland Melvin. I am an engineer, snowboarder, chemist, musician, former NFL player, astronaut, and the Associate Administrator for Education at NASA.

I am also Black History.

Black History Month celebrates the combined experiences and achievements of all African-American people. The celebration of Black history in America was led by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926. He aimed to bring national attention to the significant contributions of African-Americans to the history of this country. It started out as a week, but has now grown to encompass the entire month of February each year. Right now is a particularly exciting time in Black history, with the first African-American president, Barack Obama; and the first African-American Administrator of NASA, Charles Bolden.

The 100 years of powered flight and five decades of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have been greatly enhanced by many African-American visionaries and innovators. Aviation pioneers like Bessie Coleman and the Tuskegee Airmen set the stage. As an astronaut, I have benefited tremendously from countless trailblazers who helped make it possible for me to fly into space. Only 19 African Americans have ever been named astronauts, fourteen men and five women who signed up to help lead the world into the space age and beyond. 

The astronaut corps was not always this diverse but in recent times NASA has made considerable effort to create a group of astronauts that mirrors America’s diverse population. Many were inspired to pursue a career in space by courageous African Americans in the 60s like Ed Dwight, who was recommended for the astronaut training program by President Kennedy, and Robert Lawrence, an Air Force astronaut designee who was killed in an aircraft training exercise in 1967.  Robert Lawrence was the first astronaut who paved the way and was virtually unknown for many, many years. In 1997, the Astronauts Memorial Foundation recognized Major Lawrence as the first black astronaut in NASA history, exactly 30 years after his death. A ceremony added Lawrence’s name to the Astronauts Memorial Foundation’s Space

Mirror at Kennedy Space Center.

In the late 1970s, NASA began selecting African Americans as astronaut candidates, and the 1978 astronaut class included Guion “Guy” Bluford, Ron McNair and Fred Gregory. 

  • Bluford, an Air Force pilot, was the first African American to fly in space in 1983 on Challenger during the shuttle’s first night launch and landing. 

  • He was followed in 1984 by physicist McNair, who later died in the Challenger accident.

  • Gregory, who was both the first African-American space shuttle pilot and the first African American space shuttle commander, later became the first African-American deputy administrator of NASA. 

Other notable Black astronauts include:

  • Charles Bolden, who was the pilot and commander in four missions in the 1980s and early 1990s; in 2009, he became the first African American to serve as administrator of NASA in a permanent capacity. 

  • Mae Jemison, a medical doctor and engineer, was the first African-American female to fly in space.

  • Dr. Bernard Harris was the first African American to walk in space during his flight on the Discovery in 1995.

  • Many others followed, including Michael P. Anderson who lost his life in 2003 onboard the space shuttle Columbia along with six other crew members.

In addition to bringing to NASA their knowledge and professional talent, astronauts are also willing to risk their lives in the pursuit of exploration and discovery. We will never forget the ultimate sacrifice of Ron McNair and Michael Anderson, and we will forever honor their legacy of goodwill, hope, and achievement. 

These heroes ventured beyond on behalf of all humankind, and their selfless acts have a profound ability to bring us all together. No one knows this better than actress Nichelle Nichols, who brought to life the groundbreaking role of Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek series. She was part of an amazing entertainment vision of the future, and as a result, a whole new generation dared to dream of some day flying in space. By playing the only African-American and female bridge officer on the fictional starship crew, Nichelle inspired both girls and African-American children everywhere. Later she took this inspiration to the next level by helping NASA recruit the first class of female and minority astronauts that I mentioned earlier. Nichelle Nichols, in addition to being a star, has been a dedicated advocate for minorities and for NASA.

While Black History Month celebrates the achievements and contributions of African Americans, its lessons are valuable to all Americans because it highlights core values that make our country so great. Many of these achievements by African Americans are even more amazing because they occurred in the face of great scientific and societal challenges. The perseverance, courage, independence, service, and freedom they exhibited are qualities that all past and future pioneers of the air and space frontier require. We as a nation continue to strive in equality and opportunity, just as NASA continues to pursue innovation in a global economy and creation of a diverse, technologically savvy workforce of the future. At NASA, we are proud of our efforts to partner with historically black colleges and universities, to ensure that education experiences are available to all including underrepresented and underserved populations, and to make our workforce among the most diverse in the nation and the world. As a result, Black history will always be a key part of NASA’s history.

And you are part of this history too – we all are. Living and working on the International Space Station 240 miles above literally showed me a single planet without borders: one human race and one Earth – world of diversity, of every race, background, creed and nationality.   We are strengthened by this diversity, which is helping us to achieve the impossible. Through events like Black History Month, we’re celebrating the wonderful contributions that all citizens bring to our common goal of advancing knowledge through exploration. We are furthering NASA and the nation’s commitment to opportunity. This history is our legacy, our yesterday. But it’s also here and now. And it’s the future – our future.

Together we will continue to reach new heights and reveal the unknown so that the things we do and what we learn will benefit all humankind.