Black Joy

We’re not on the moon, but we’ve gotten close | Black Joy – July 23, 2021

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Don’t worry, a rat hasn’t bit my sister Nell.

But there sure have been a lot of billionaires shooting for the moon lately as the commercial space race went into full blast the past few weeks.

In the middle of it all, though, a parade of Black space pioneers, icons of science and science fiction and nerds have appeared on TV as commentators and experts. As quiet as it’s kept, many of the roughly 20 African American NASA astronauts were born in or have significant ties to the South.

If you’ve been watching coverage of recent private space launches, you’ve likely seen a lot of Dr. Mae Jemison, a Decatur, Ala., native and the first Black woman to orbit Earth, and Dr. Leland Melvin, who was born in Lynchburg, Va., and went viral a few years back for including his pups in an astronaut photoshoot.

And let’s not forget the true story of “Hidden Figures,” about pioneering Black women scientists at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

TBD on whether we’ll see Oprah, Beyoncé, Tyler Perry or any other Black billionaires lift off anytime soon. (The safe money’s on Bob Johnson, the Mississippi-born founder of B.E.T.)

In the meantime, let’s rocket over to Jackson, Miss., and its Russell C. Davis Planetarium.

Shout out to Alexis D. Wray for helping out on this issue. Starr touches back down next week.

—R.L. and Alexis

Meet Mike Williams, Trekkie and Mississippi planetarium director

Mike Williams, the director of the Russell C. Davis Planetarium in Jackson, Miss., recalls several years ago when a group of 1st and 2nd graders disembarked from the elevator and audibly wowed at a giant Earthrise photo on the wall.

Williams, who’s worked at the facility for a decade, was a little taken aback by the kids’ reaction. After all, the planetarium was still using film projectors for its theater shows, not exactly a high-tech digital experience.

“It was cute and touching in that moment, but I remember thinking, ‘We don’t really deserve that wow,” Williams told Reckon.

It was then that Williams knew he wanted to up the planetarium’s game.

Fast forward to today.

After the building suffered roof damage from hail and sub-zero temperatures a couple of years back, the city of Jackson decided to invest $12 million in a new building designed around the theme of ascension, pulling visitors higher and higher up through the cavernous foyer. Another $2 million is so far earmarked for operations, including educational programming.

Williams, a Jackson native, is neither a scientist nor an educator, he says. Rather, he studied mass communications at Jackson State University and worked many years in music and entertainment, including with hip hop artist and actor David Banner. In fact, he calls it “a cosmic coincidence” that he landed in the planetarium’s leadership role.

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed construction progress, but Williams hopes to break ground on the new building by the end of the year.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a Black city with all the worst statistical points you can put out there — poverty, education, employment. This was an opportunity to make good on what I promised those kids on that elevator.”

Fantastic Voyages

Williams and his colleagues at the planetarium visited some of the top planetariums and science museums in the country in planning for Jackson’s new facility.

“We want to create an immersive experience, like when you come into the planetarium, you’re leaving Earth for a little while,” he said. Some are temporarily closed due the pandemic, but go ahead and add them to your bucket list.

  • The Adler Planetarium in Chicago features the Gemini 12 space capsule and one of the nation’s only public urban observatories, the Doane Observatory.
  • In Washington, D.C., check out the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Air and Space Museum.
  • The Jennifer Chalsty Planetarium at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., is the largest planetarium in the Western Hemisphere.
  • The Kennedy Space Center, which gets almost 2 million visitors a year to see its historic spacecraft, Atlantis exhibit, simulated shuttle launch ride and daily presentations from a real-life NASA astronaut.

Cosmic Slop

Maybe it has to do with the prevalence of the aeronautics industries in the South (prominent sites include Huntsville, Ala.; Hancock County, Miss.; Hampton, Va.; Houston), but several Black astronauts have ties to the South. Here are a few more you should know:

  • Ronald E. McNair. Born in South Carolina, as a boy, McNair refused to leave his local library until the librarian allowed him to check out books even after the police were called. (Fun fact: In the early 80s, he visited Jackson’s Russell C. Davis planetarium to appear in a film). McNair, one of the first Black astronauts to suit up for space flight, died tragically in the 1986 Challenger but his legacy lives on through many academic programs and education institutions named in his honor.
  • Mae Jemison was born in Alabama and grew up in Chicago. She enrolled at Stanford when she was just 16 years old. In 1992, she orbited Earth for more than a week on the Space Shuttle Endeavour, becoming the first African American woman to go to space.
  • Leland D. Melvin, of Virginia, was selected in 1998 as part of a NASA mission to deliver the European Space Agency’s Columbus Laboratory to the International Space Station. Later, he served as associate administrator for the NASA’s Office of Education from 2010 to 2014.
  • Bobby Satcher was born and raised in Hampton, Va. After training at MIT and Harvard for medical school, he was a mission specialist in 2009.

These historically black colleges and universities have programs that can lead to aerospace careers and are worth checking into for budding astronauts: Hampton University; Delaware State University; Tuskegee University; Tennessee State University; Elizabeth City State University; North Carolina A&T State University

We’ve already mentioned Hidden Figures, but you should also watch the documentary “Black in Space: Breaking the Color Barrier,” available on Amazon Prime that centers on Black astronauts and engineers standing at the crossroads of the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race. Also highly recommended is Leland Melvin’s episode of the Netflix “Dogs” documentary.

For fun, I’d also throw in the 1984 cult classic “Brother from Another Planet” starring Joe Morton about, well, a brotha from outer space. The original trailer billed it — no cap — as “E.T. rides the underground railroad.” What a trip.

See ya’ next time!

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated that several historically black colleges and universities offer aerospace engineering programs. It should have stated that these schools offer engineering programs that can be gateways into aerospace careers. Also, the story previously stated that North Carolina State University has such a program, but it should have said North Carolina A&T State University.

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