Before the movie “Hidden Figures” was released in 2016, one African American youngster liked daydreaming about the stars. At five years-old he talked about space ships, circling the sun and clouds. He was not interested in watching a “girl” movie, but kept playing with his rockets and cars.
Last December his Christmas wish list was very short and specific. While many of his peers wanted electronics and technology, all Jordan-Amman West-Williams, now 8 years-old, wanted was anything dealing with space.
“I’m gonna be right up there, walking around the moon and Mars,” said JA, as he excitedly pointed towards pictures and videos on the computer.
Space kits with plastic balls and rings to fit around them, stars, the moon and information about who had actually made the trip across the sky and into the outer zone.
We had a 2001 space book, but it did not have updated information on the planets. The book also failed to have very little information about Black astronauts. And all I had were “old” books and magazines about women in space, like Chicagoan Dr. Mae C. Jemison. Suddenly that “girl” movie became important again, as Jordan-Amman could include the ladies in his Black History and Science project.
The four original women, who were considered “hidden figures”, were awarded Congressional Gold Medals, which is the highest award that a civilian can earn. Computer programmer, Dorothy Vaughan, Mathematician Katherine Johnson, Engineer Christine Darden, and Engineer Mary Jackson, who are all deceased. And an overall honor went to all women who have made a contribution to NASA.
Last month, NASA honored the late “Hidden Figures” engineer, Mary W. Jackson, with a building named in her honor. The HBCU Hampton University graduate died in 1983, but she is remembered for her intellectual ability and volunteer service in the community. The building was named The Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters.
The first recognized African American astronaut was Chicagoan Major Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr., who graduated from Bradley University with a degree in chemistry at the age of 20. He was also a member of the U.S. Airforce. Lawrence died in a training accident and was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart for his service to our country, after his death in 1967. He was only 32 years-old.
The first Black astronaut to actually fly on four missions was Guion Bluford, Jr., 77 years-old, and still living with his family. Like Mr. Lawrence, Bluford was a member of the U.S. Air Force and flew planes during the Vietnam war. When the war ended, Bluford joined NASA and flew on four missions in the 1970’s. He retired in 1993.
Astronaut Fred Gregory was the first African American pilot to fly on a mission. He flew the Orbiter STS. He directed more than 500 flights during the Vietnam War. Gregory, 79 is retired from the U. S. Air Force and NASA.
JA’s space role model is Ronald McNair, who died in 1986. “He only went on one mission. I want to do a lot of them,” JA said. McNair was the second Black man to travel as a NASA astronaut.
With studying about McNair, Jordan learned that he was a physicist, a husband and a team player. McNair also earned a Ph.D. and was merely 35 years-old when the Challenger launched off on live television and exploded, where all crew members died.
“I liked him because he had to learn to do research and I have to do research in the library,” he said. Originally, JA had sought to do a project on Mrs. Katherine Johnson, who died earlier this year, but in the end, it was Dr. McNair’s story that captured his attention, beyond the Hidden Figures winners.
“And Mr. McNair died on the Challenger and that was bad, because he didn’t finish his last mission. He went to God,” JA said.