I like Steve Harvey. He is a funny comedian, he was great on “Family Feud,” and if I had heard some of his motivational speeches 45 years ago, I might have followed a different path.
But no one is perfect. There was a time I disagreed with part of one of his comedy routines. It was from the 2008 show “Steve Harvey — Still Trippin’.”
He was talking about how you could tell if a news story was about Black people or White people just by what was being said. At one point he said he was listening to CNN when he heard, “Astronaut drives 900 miles with Depends diaper on in an attempted murder scheme. Details at 11.”
- “Yeah, that’s some White folks. You already know that ain’t got nothing to do with us,” he said to the mostly Black audience. “First off, listen how the story started. ‘Astronaut.” Who you know in the space program? Who you know gives a (expletive) about the space program? We could care less about the space program. You be hearing them on the TV all the time: ‘We are planning to take our first trip to the moon in 2015. People are signing up. Cost could be up to a million dollars.’ We don’t give a (expletive) if it’s free. We ain’t carrying our black (expletive) to the moon.”
It was at this point he lost me for a moment during the show because I knew he was wrong. Black people have been a part of the manned space program from the very beginning.
When President Dwight Eisenhower created NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) he made it integrated. There were never “whites only” or “coloreds only” bathrooms, break rooms or anything of that nature. This was one of the things that the movie “Hidden Figures” got wrong. The segregation shown in that movie actually took place at an earlier time at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, which was replaced by NASA.
Right from the start, Black Americans played key roles in the space program. People like Katherine Johnson, who as part of the Space Task Group did the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 flight as the first American in space and calculated the orbit for John Glenn’s flight as the first American to orbit the earth.
Then there was Mary Jackson, NASA’s first Black female engineer, who worked in several different divisions of NASA, including the High-Speed Aerodynamics Division and the Subsonic-Transonic Aerodynamics Division, and was the author or co-author of 12 technical papers.
In 1983, 25 years before Harvey’s routine aired, Guion Bluford became the first Black American in space when he flew on shuttle mission STS-8. Bluford flew a total of four missions. He was quickly followed by Ronald McNair in 1984, who became the second Black American to fly in space. Sadly, McNair was killed on his second flight when the shuttle Challenger broke apart shortly after takeoff in 1986.
Mae Jemison became the first Black woman to fly in space when she orbited the Earth for eight days as a part of the STS-47 mission in 1992. Only a few years later in 1995, Dr. Bernard Harris became the first Black man to walk in space when he performed an extra-vehicular activity during his second space shuttle flight.
Even as I write this, there is a Black American working on the International Space Station (ISS). Victor J. Glover Jr., a Navy aviator and test pilot selected as an astronaut in 2013, was launched into space on Nov. 15, 2020, as pilot and second-in-command of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience.
As part of his long duration mission aboard the ISS, he serves as flight engineer. Earlier this month, Glover and astronaut Mike Hopkins completed two spacewalks to finish upgrading the electrical system outside the station with new lithium-ion batteries. At one point during the walk, Glover rode the Canadian robot arm to reach a section of the space station.
In addition to the batteries, Glover and Hopkins installed a new camera outside the U.S. Destiny lab and replaced parts in the camera system outside the station’s Japanese lab, Kibo.
At this time, Glover lives on the ISS with three other Americans, two Russians and one Japanese astronaut. They work together as equals, each depending on the other without question or hesitation.
Down here on Earth, we still say “Black astronaut,” or “woman astronaut” or “Russian astronaut.” I look forward to the day we can just say “astronaut,” without reference to race, gender or nationality.