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February: Black History Month

Read below excerpts from oral history interviews conducted with some of the African-American individuals who contributed to NASA’s legacy. Their achievements span more than 50 years of history in the space agency.

Charles F. Bolden
Guion S. Bluford
Julian M. Earls
Annie J. Easley
Frederick D. Gregory
Harriett G. Jenkins
Sharon C. McDougle
Ned J. Robinson
Charles H. Scales
Woodrow Whitlow

Charles F. Bolden, Johnson Space Center, NASA Headquarters
Astronaut, NASA Administrator
Interviewed 1/6/04 & 1/15/04

I was none of those
I’d learned that NASA was accepting applications for the astronaut program, something I never had any interest in. I knew what astronauts were, but again, because I had grown up in South Carolina and I had seen the things that I had seen, I knew who astronauts were. I knew what they did, but not in my wildest imagination could somebody like me become an astronaut, because they were all white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, all test pilots, all about five-feet-ten. They all looked alike. And I was none of those.

So I picked up an application, but I didn’t fill it out. I didn’t send it in. I said, “Why waste my time and the Marine Corps’ time?” So I went to Patuxent River [Naval Air Station], did my test pilot training, became a test pilot, and I was assigned there when NASA selected the first group of Space Shuttle astronauts in 1978. That was a very diverse group of thirty-five people. It included Ron McNair, Sally Ride, Guy Bluford, and Fred Gregory.

In the spring of my first year as a test pilot, many of them came back to Pax River, since most of the Navy guys were Patuxent River graduates, and they came back for the Test Pilot School reunion. I met a lot of them. I met Hoot Gibson, Ron McNair, Guy Bluford, Fred Gregory, and we talked a little bit about their experiences their first year down here. And I got interested and said, “I probably won’t be selected, but I’ll never know if I don’t apply.”

I packed up my family and we moved to Houston
So I put an application in through the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps nominated me to NASA for the space program, and then I was fortunate enough to be invited to come to Houston in the winter of 1980. I came down and went through the interview process, went back home and told my wife it was awesome, but no way, it’s just not going to happen.

And months passed. I interviewed in February, and on the 31st of May, in 1980, I was on my way out to fly a test-op and got a phone call from George Abbey, asking me if I was still interested in being an astronaut.

I said, “Sure.” I thought it was a joke, really.

And he said, “You’ve been selected to be in this group of astronauts.” There were nineteen of us, and two Europeans, Claude Nicollier and Ulf Merbold from Holland. So he said, “If you can be here the first of July, we’d like for you to join this class and start training.”

So, I packed up my family and we moved to Houston, and that was the beginning of my fourteen years in the Astronaut Office.

Read Charlie Bolden's Oral History transcripts

Guion S. Bluford, Johnson Space Center

Interviewed 8/24/04

First African-American astronaut in space
I flew STS-8 (1983). I was very thankful, surprisingly enough, that Sally Ride flew before me, because she had all that hoopla. So I saw what she did that worked out well and what she did that didn’t work out well, which was all right.

There was controversy; people tried to stir up controversy with me. “Don’t you want to fly before Sally Ride?” No, it didn’t bother me at all. “Why are they flying you at two-thirty in the morning?” No, that’s the mission. So there was always some undercurrent or somebody and it never got very far.

Read Guy Bluford's Oral History transcript

Julian M. Earls, Glenn Research Center
Center Director
Interviewed 2/22/06 & 2/23/06

Removing racism
I was a catalyst, probably, for the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee being established here, because as a new supervisor at Glenn Research Center, (Lewis Research Center in 1968), there were supervisory courses that we would take in orientation courses. And I remember through the Organization Development and Training Office sitting in this class, and one of the tests that they were giving dealt with humor. They would have a story and ask you to pick the right punch line for the story, and they had two stories in there that were the most racist that you could ever imagine. I was so offended that we would be a federal agency, a Research Center, having a training and development program with racist materials in it that I went straight to the top.

I went to the Center Director and ended up meeting with an individual named Henry Barnett, who turned out to be a good friend and mentor. He was the equivalent of the Director of Administration here at the Center. I told them how upset I was with that material, shared that with them, and Henry Barnett had that material removed from the program immediately.

Something has to change
Then I started to review where we were as a Center, and in those days we had an adjective rating system here at the Center where you could be poor, fair, good, outstanding, excellent, and so forth. And not a single black employee at this Center had ever received an outstanding as an adjective rating. I looked around to see where the blacks in supervision were. Well, there I was, lonely by myself as the only black supervisor. And I said, “We need to do something.”

So I really organized the black employees here, and we would meet on weekends, offsite at a local church, put together documentation, the statistics in terms of where we were at this Center, black employees compared to other employees, and went to management and said, “Something has to change.”

Henry Barnett decided that he would establish an Equal Employment Opportunity Committee and asked me to serve on that Committee. Another friend of mine, Harold Ferguson, became the first EEO Officer. And that’s when we started to make some inroads and some changes in terms of minority employees at Lewis Research Center.

Read Julian Earls' Oral History transcripts

Annie J. Easley, Glenn Research Center
Computer/Mathematician/Computer Scientist
Interviewed 8/21/01

I'm here to work
[In 1955] there was an African-American male working in the engineering side, and in the other group in another building, there were t wo African-American females working. I didn't feel like, "I'm a minority, I'm less." I just have my own attitude. I'm here to work. You may look at me, someone else may look at me, and see something different, but that's okay. But I'm out here to do a job and I knew I had the ability to do it, and that's where my focus was, on getting the job done.

I was not intentionally trying to be a pioneer. I wanted a job, I wanted to work. But it was never "poor me," though I'm not so unaware that I don't know what's going on around me. My mom said, "You can do anything you want to, but you have to work at it," and that was part of it. With her strong teachings, I was able to do it.

If I can't work with you, I will work around you
Oh, discrimination is definitely there. As a minority, I know that it was there, and one of the things I remember is having a picture made at a work site in Building 49. We had a piece of equipment. There were six people that worked on it, and someone took a picture of us in a work situation.

Now, there used to be open houses out here, in the earlier years. Once a year or once every two or three years, they'd have an open house, and they blew [this picture] up to put it on display. I was cut out of that picture. I was so embarrassed, when we go through this building, to see this—and one of them said, "Oh, Annie, they cut you out of the picture." I said something to my room supervisor. She said, "Oh, I don't blame you. I'd be upset, too." And that was the end of it.

So yes, as I said, people don't change. It doesn't matter where you're located. When people have their biases and prejudices, yes, I am aware. My head is not in the sand. But my thing is, if I can't work with you, I will work around you. I was not about to be so discouraged that I'd walk away. That may be a solution for some people, but it's not mine.

So yes, I'm sure, I, like many others, have been judged not on what I can do, but on what I look like. So yes, I'm aware that that has happened. But, I would not let that get me down. Money is important to all of us. We need it to survive. You may control my purse strings, but you don't control my life. That's just the way I feel about it.

Read Annie Easley's Oral History transcript

Frederick D. Gregory, Johnson Space Center, NASA Headquarters
Astronaut, Deputy Administrator
Interviewed 4/29/04, 3/14/05, 4/18/06

These were not tokens
There were three African Americans in the [Air Force Academy] class of ’63. These were high-quality people. These were not tokens. These were people you would be very proud to work with and would learn significantly from. So they weren’t brought in just to change the color of the Academy. They were brought in because they were absolutely equal to the other members of the class. I was in ‘64, and I was the only one in my class.

If you have a common interest
That was not my first experience being in an integrated society of sorts. As a kid, I was in the first integrated Boy Scout troop in Washington, D.C., and my first exposure was in 1953, when this integrated Boy Scout troop traveled by train from Washington, D.C., to Irvine, California, to participate in a Boy Scout Jamboree; fifty thousand boys out there.

So we traveled by train in a first integrated Boy Scout troop, and it was an experience that was almost a non-experience, because what I found very early in my life—and at that time I was twelve—that if you have a very common interest, a set of drives, a common goal, in the future, and if it’s shared, that discrimination seems somehow to disappear. People forget those kinds of weird things and they concentrate on all crossing the finish line.

I had that experience in ’53 and then again in ’54 and ’55, when we traveled by bus to a Boy Scout camp in northern New Mexico, Philmont Scout Ranch. It was the same kind of a thing. Though the schools were not integrated in Washington and the society wasn’t integrated in Washington, these Boy Scout troops were, and we found that we had common interests. We all had hangups about this and that and the other, but we were all fascinated by the adventure that we were on.

I can remember, as we traveled, we generally stayed at Air Force bases, spent the night there, and I’m sure, as I learned later, that this was a very safe place to stay, because the military had integrated in the late forties. I didn’t realize at the time how important that was. But one evening, we spent the evening at Tulsa University, and Tulsa [Oklahoma] was a very segregated city, I guess, because when we’d settled in and we were going to do a night activity, the night activity was to go to a movie theater to see a movie, and the several of us African Americans on the trip were told that we couldn’t go because the theater was segregated.

The Boy Scout troop, the rest of the boys who were with us, upon hearing that, decided not to go at all. I remember we spent the evening in the gym at Tulsa University, playing basketball and running on the track and just generally having a great time. And that was an important thing that I don’t think I realized at the time how important it really was to me.

And that same experience I had in the Air Force. It was as though, “If he can’t go, none of us are going to do it.” And at this point I began to realize that the military and the Air Force had, much earlier than the Brown v. Board of Education, or any of those activities that began to talk about integration, the military had already done this in 1948. So what I was now living, I was benefiting from the sacrifices and the horrors that had occurred before the military integrated.

Because of the Tuskegee Airmen
So if I can just jump ahead a little bit, in 1976 or ’77, when I was considering applying for the astronaut program, General Ben Davis, who I had known for a very long time, called me and he encouraged me to apply for the astronaut program, and he said he wanted me to do it not because of him, but because of the Tuskegee Airmen. I asked him who the Tuskegee Airmen were, and he told me the story of the experiment, and I began putting all these pieces together and realized that it was a person like Ben Davis, his father, General Davis, and the Tuskegee Airmen that had so demonstrated their capability to contribute, to make a contribution, that caused this military change in 1948, which then allowed me to go to the Air Force Academy and be a classmate, as opposed to kind of an oddball that is in there only because someone directed that it occur.

The stage had been set
A joke was told the day I arrived at the Academy, a racial joke. I’d heard jokes all my life like that. My parents told me just don’t pay any attention to them. Several hours later I was called to the officer in charge of the squadron that I had been assigned to. He apologized profusely for telling the joke and committed to me that I would never be exposed to anything like that again in my life.

Several years ago, I went to his funeral and I walked up to his wife and I told her about this incident that had occurred forty-two years before. She knew the story and knew me, though I had never met her. She told me how traumatized he was when he came home that evening.

So we hugged. This was many, many years later, but it was very similar to the experience that I had at Tulsa University and it was really a settling experience for me. Things such as that allowed me the opportunity to do anything that I wanted, because I knew that the stage had been set, and it was a great opportunity then to just do whatever I wanted.

Read Fred Gregory's Oral History transcripts

Harriett G. Jenkins, NASA Headquarters
Assistant Administrator for Equal Opportunity Programs

Interviewed 8/5/11

Striving to have this be a team effort
If I had to sum it up in terms of what I think my impact might have been, what would I talk about? I guess helping to show the NASA family that one can strive for and attain a talented integrated staff that will help them do their phenomenal tasks and achieve their goals and will make them proud of what they do. I guess I really don’t think about the changes necessarily being attributed to me, because all along I was striving to have this be a team effort where we’re all helping each other do what we have to do. I think I’m feeling pretty certain about that.

I remember being quite surprised when one of my former staffers called me and said, “We wanted to tell you that we’re trying to get a program established in your name at NASA.”

The Harriett G. Jenkins Pre-doctoral Fellowship provides full-time graduate students (master's and doctoral level) who are underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines up to three years of funding and support.

Read Harriet Jenkins' Oral History transcript

Sharon C. McDougle, Johnson Space Center
Spacesuit Team Manager
Interviewed 7/9/10

I was proud to be the only black woman in my department
We had a board out in the lab here, and they would list all the astronauts. I had already heard the first “sister,” as I say, was going to space [STS-47], so right when my lead put the names up, I placed my name by Mae Jemison’s; she’s my crew member. Everyone already knew the first black woman would be assigned to me.

I was proud to be the only black woman in my department. Like I said, I wanted to make sure Mae was taken care of, she was comfortable, and I wanted to be the one to do that. I didn’t want anybody else assigned to her. I’m sure they would have done a fabulous job too, not saying nobody else was good enough to take care of her. I just wanted to be the one. You know that kinship, that family feeling. Bottom line, I just wanted to make sure she was taken care of. I knew my stuff, and I’m really good at what I do.

I had never met her, and it didn’t matter. I still would have taken good care of her because I wanted her to do well and feel safe. I felt her suit and training should have been her last worry. I treat all my crew members the same way, but I never felt so passionate about an assignment. I told my lead, “I’m suiting up Mae.” That was the only time I’ve ever done that.

Another achievement under a black woman’s belt
[STS-47] meant that we finally made it once again, another achievement under a black woman’s belt. I do feel it’s more special to me when it’s a black woman doing something for the first time. I still felt so proud that as a black woman I was able to be her suit tech, to be there for her, to take care of her. It’s like I mentioned before, it’s like family. It’s like, “That’s my sister going into space.”

It was very emotional because she was the first. She’s always going to be the first. She’s the first black woman in space. She mentioned in one of her books that all the teachers and everybody would try to tell her, “Oh you need to focus on just girl-related jobs and not think that big about being an astronaut or anything like that.” I think that was one of the driving forces behind her, people telling her, “You can’t do it,” or “You shouldn’t do it."

I knew once I got here that I would move up
As far as the people that make decisions, my management, I think I’ve been so fortunate and treated so well since I’ve been here, since coming in the door [United Space Alliance]. I moved through the ranks. I think everybody is treated fairly and judged and promoted on what they bring to the table, on their merit and credentials, and how hard they work. That’s why I wasn’t real concerned when I came out here. I started at the bottom as a C technician even though I had eight years’ experience. But I knew once I got here, and they saw my work ethic and saw what I had to offer that I would move up.

And I did. I was the only black woman in here for a long time, then we had another come in for a little while. I was at the bottom of the totem pole. I became an A tech, which is a crew chief, and I was the only woman to achieve that at that time.

Read Sharon McDougle's Oral History transcript

Ned J. Robinson, Johnson Space Center
Communications Test Lab Manager
Interviewed 10/7/09

There’s a sense of accomplishment
People tend to take communication for granted, especially now that we have cell phones and pocket TVs. Everybody figures you turn stuff on, it works. Well, somebody had to make sure it worked before you got to it. We’ve had a whole bunch of stuff that we’ve accomplished, and we have managed to maintain a high regard with MOD [Mission Operations Directorate] and people with the reputation of being able to provide you with actual data. We tend to be a little bit pessimistic so that we never had anybody complain saying, “Well, it’s working better than you said.” Nobody’s complained about that, but it definitely never works any worse than what we said.

ESTL is like a family
There’s a sense of accomplishment that we know that we’re providing a service to each program, to JSC, to the agency. For some of these people, whether they realize it or not, we have a lot of people who were forced to come and do testing, because they thought everything was all right with their project. Then when they got in they find out what we were doing and said, “Man, sure glad we came,” because they got to see how the system worked. It would have been embarrassing.

That’s what has kept me going. More or less ESTL [Electronics System Test Laboratory] is like a family. There’s a lot of deep loyalty. People feel a sense of accomplishment. They know that we’re doing stuff. Sometimes we’re doing exciting stuff.

It’s the people
It’s the people. That’s the other thing I tell people in tours. You see all this fancy equipment and all this, it means nothing without the people behind it with the knowledge and the dedication to find the right answer. Without the people, you’re nowhere. That’s what has made it great.

They’re so motivated, it makes my job easy, because once they know my philosophy of how we operate, people come to them about stuff, and they relay it back to me, and they say, “Oh yes, we can do such and such and such, we’ll check over here and get it done.” It makes my job easier that I’m not worried about productivity. That’s how they operate. The people keep it going, because everybody has that sense of accomplishment and pride of what they’ve done.

Read Ned Robinson's Oral History transcript

Charles H. Scales, NASA Headquarters
Associate Deputy Administrator
Interviewed 11/16/07

Someone is going to do it, why not us?
In the history of the world, those nations that have grown have always been explorers. NASA for the United States is the one agency charged with exploration. We don't know what's out there, but we believe that it’s our charge to try to find out.

As we attempt to find out, as we go on those paths, there are all kinds of things that we discover. The benefits that we've gained for society as a whole over the last 50 years are just frankly immeasurable. They will have impact on society for as long as there is a society. Just the challenge itself has been so inspirational for not only the United States but for people everywhere.

I think going forward we will continue to play that role. As the President said, “It's not an option we choose. It's a desire written in the human heart.” Someone is going to do it, why not us?

Our role in aeronautics is sometimes under appreciated
I think our role in aeronautics is sometimes under appreciated. I think when the flying public goes to Grandma's for Thanksgiving, they don't really have a full appreciation for what NASA has done to improve air travel and the safety involved in air traffic management and materials used to build aircraft, and deicing technology. All of those things NASA's played a tremendous role in.

Maybe the public shouldn't say, “I feel better about going to Grandma's because of what NASA's done.” But NASA's role in aeronautics has been good. When I worked at the Glenn Research Center I used to love going down to the deicing tunnel where they do research on the impact of ice forming on the wings of aircraft and the proper way to deice aircraft. I think people don't really relate that to NASA research.

Read Charles Scales' Oral History transcript

Woodrow Whitlow, NASA Headquarters
Associate Administrator for Mission Support
Interviewed 5/9/07

The workforce has changed
The nature of the workforce has changed a lot. We still have some improvements we could make, but the diversity of the workforce has changed tremendously. I can remember talking to some of the more senior people at Langley [Research Center] who [remembered when] African American women didn’t have bathrooms in their buildings they could use.

People want to be a part of what we do
The reason I decided I’d have to be an aeronautical and astronautical engineer was so I could work for NASA, so that I could be an astronaut. And you get people who had that goal, so even if they didn’t become an astronaut, maybe they became this scientist or a medical researcher. Maybe this person is going to be the one that discovers a cure for cancer or a cure for heart disease.

So I would think just the inspiration that NASA provided, because people want to be a part of what we do because nobody goes out to try to do something else and say, “Well, I wanted to be x, but I ended up at NASA.”

You don’t "end up" at NASA. You have to work hard to get here. The economic development and discovery and advances in science and technology, the spin-offs, those tremendous impacts; just the national pride that we inspire.

Read Woodrow Whitlow's Oral History transcript

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