CNN photo illustration
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Born in Mexico, Neri Vela was the first Mexican person in space as he flew aboard a NASA space shuttle mission in 1985.
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.
Wang was the first person born in China to fly in space when he flew on STS-51B Challenger in 1985.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (then NASDA) selected Doi for its 1985 astronaut class. On a 1997 NASA mission, Doi became the first Japanese astronaut to walk in space. In 2008, he was the first to throw a boomerang made for microgravity during spaceflights.
It wasn’t until former astronaut Charles Bolden Jr. met Ronald McNair (a Nichols recruit) in person that Bolden believed he could be an astronaut, said Bolden, who is also a former NASA administrator and retired US Marine Corps Major General.
Bolden explains in the following clip why the idea of going to space once seemed so far-fetched.
Bolden channeled that embarrassment at not initially believing he could do it into the determination to apply for the astronaut program, he said. Eventually, NASA selected him in 1980 for the second group of space shuttle astronauts. Around 10 minutes into his first space flight, which he piloted, the crew was orbiting Earth when he saw a big island — which turned out to be Africa, he said. “Being of African descent, I had spent a lot of time studying the geography of the planet so I’d be able to try to find, perhaps, one or more of the countries from which my ancestors may have come.”
Here, Bolden describes the experience.
He retired as a major general over two decades later. “My wife and I moved back to Houston, Texas, to think about what we wanted to do,” Bolden said. But Bolden’s space ventures didn’t stop there.
“After staying there for six years, (I) got a call from the Obama administration, eventually saying that the President wanted to nominate me to be the NASA administrator,” Bolden said. “I accepted his nomination, came back, and I was confirmed by the Senate and started my what was almost an eight-year tenure as the NASA administrator. … To be working for the first Black President of the United States was absolutely mind-boggling, incredible.”
Other trailblazers of color made an indelible impact on the history of space exploration in different ways.
Jerry Elliott is a former space flight missions operations engineer of Cherokee and Osage heritage. While working at NASA’s Mission Control Center, he was instrumental in calculating the spacecraft trajectory that saved the lives of the Apollo 13 crew and helped them return to Earth in 1970. This feat earned Elliott and his colleagues the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
John Herrington became the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to fly in space when aboard STS-113 in 2002. To honor his heritage, Herrington brought along a few cultural artifacts, including Chickasaw Nation’s flag, during his work as a mission specialist.
In the video below, Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman and Black woman of any nationality in space, explains the significance of the items she brought along with her on the journey.
John “Danny” Olivas’ father’s work involved manufacturing components for the aerospace field, Olivas, a Hispanic engineer and former NASA astronaut, said. His father’s contributions, among many other people’s, to human spaceflight made then-7-year-old Olivas want to be “one of the many components that ultimately contributed to doing something as phenomenal as putting human beings in space,” Olivas said.
NASA selected Olivas as an astronaut in its 1998 class, after Olivas had applied annually for nine years while strengthening his qualifications.
Olivas flew and did spacewalks on two space shuttle missions and conducted the first on-orbit repair of a shuttle during a spacewalk.
The first person of Korean ancestry in space was then-astronaut Mark Polansky, who flew on three NASA space shuttle missions in 2001, 2006 and 2009. His mother is from Hawaii and of Korean descent, and his father was Jewish, so Polansky took a teddy bear from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on STS-116.
NASA’s Artemis team is an initial team of astronauts helping to facilitate future lunar missions. The team includes nine people of color:
In 2004, Acaba was the first mission specialist of Puerto Rican heritage selected by NASA. He completed astronaut training in 2006.
Chari was selected for NASA’s 2017 astronaut class, and he is currently training for the NASA SpaceX Crew-3 Mission to the ISS scheduled to launch in October 2021.
Glover was selected as an astronaut in 2013 while working as a legislative fellow in the US Senate. He was pilot and second-in-command on the Crew-1 SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience, which also made him the first Black (African American) person to hold a long-duration crew assignment on the ISS.
Kim, a Korean American, was selected for NASA’s 2017 astronaut class and has since completed the initial astronaut training.
After serving as the deputy crew surgeon for STS-130 and Expedition 24, Lindgren was selected as an astronaut in 2009. Lindgren has done two spacewalks and more than 100 scientific experiments in space. He is currently in training to fly the NASA SpaceX Crew-4 mission to the ISS in 2022.
Moghbeli was selected for NASA’s 2017 astronaut class and has since completed the initial astronaut training.
After joining NASA’s 2017 astronaut class, Rubio is awaiting a mission assignment after completing initial astronaut training. He has also worked as a US Army helicopter pilot, family physician and flight surgeon.
Selected for NASA’s 2017 astronaut class, Watkins has finished her initial astronaut training and has worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity.
Selected for NASA’s 1996 astronaut class, Wilson flew space shuttle missions in 2006, 2007 and 2010.
Critical decisions by Nichols and NASA in the 1970s ultimately helped generations of people of color see themselves in space-related and civic-minded careers.
Here, Herrington describes how a November 2015 encounter helped him realize how that legacy of inspiration has continued.
Olivas’ philosophy about human space exploration parallels human progress in terms of race-related barriers and inclusion. “Human exploration of space is less a goal as much as it is a journey,” he told NASA in 2006. “We embarked on this back in the early ‘60s and we have made tremendous progress. We’ve learned a lot; we’ve had a lot of success. We’ve had a few failures, and we’ve learned from our failures.”
While efforts to include people of color among space personnel have progressed, some of these astronauts have expressed, as Polansky does here, that there is still more work to do.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated and misattributed the famous line “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” which was said by former NASA astronaut Jim Lovell.
Editors: Deblina Chakraborty and Katia Hetter
Sound editor: Kristen Rogers
Digital design and development: Tiffany Baker, Gabrielle Smith and Ivory Sherman
Researchers: Megan Marples and Sarah Molano
Images: NASA, Getty Images and Alamy