For many US citizens, the first moon landing (1969) remains the most memorable moment in the history of spaceflight. It was an era when the Soviet Union and the United States were rushing to prove their dominance. During this space race, a lesser-known story was taking place: NASA’s effort to send an African-American into space.
Although the US won the race of putting the first human on the moon, it did not launch the first black person into space. The Soviet Union beat the United States space agency by three years.
Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, along with a Soviet cosmonaut crewmate, was launched into space aboard Soyuz spacecraft on September 18, 1980. Méndez became the first person of African heritage to travel into Earth orbit. NASA, on the other hand, launched the first black astronaut into space in August 1983.
Today, NASA’s Astronaut Selection Board receives more than 12,000 applications annually with a variety of backgrounds. It assesses each candidate’s qualifications and selects only a few for the intensive Astronaut Candidate Program.
Below, you will find a comprehensive list of black astronauts of African descent who have traveled into space in the last 40 years.
14. Mae Jemison – First black woman in space
Mae aboard the Spacelab Japan module
Mission launch: September 1992
Time in space: 7d 22h 30m
In June 1987, Mae Jemison became the first African American woman to be selected into NASA’s astronaut training program. She worked on multiple projects at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory.
On September 12, 1992, she finally traveled to space with six other astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on mission STS-47, becoming the first black woman to travel into space. The mission primarily involved performing experiments in life and material sciences.
She spent more than 190 hours in space and orbited the Earth 127 times before returning to the ground. In recognition of her achievements, Jemison received several awards, including Johnson Publications Black Achievement Trailblazers Award (1992), Rachel Carson Award (2005), and Buzz Aldrin Space Pioneer Award (2017).
13. Ronald McNair
Mission launch: February 1984; January 1986
Time in space: 7d 23h 15m
Born in a low-income community in South Carolina, Ronald McNair graduated with honors and earned a Ph.D. in LASER Physics. In 1978, he was selected as one of 35 applicants from a pool of 8,000 for the NASA astronaut program.
McNair flew as a mission specialist on STS-41-B, the tenth NASA Space Shuttle mission, from 3 to 11 February 1984. In this mission, the crew deployed two Hughes 376 communications satellites and conducted acoustic levitation and chemical separation experiments.
A couple of years later, McNair was selected as a mission specialist for another Space Shuttle mission, STS 51-L. On January 28, 1986, the rocket exploded 1 minute 13 seconds after launch, killing all seven crew members aboard.
12. Robert Satcher – First orthopedic surgeon in space
Satcher during the STS-129 mission
Mission launch: November 2009
Time in space: 10d 19h 16m
Robert Satcher holds two doctorates and has received several honors and awards as an engineer and surgeon. In 2004, he was picked by NASA and trained to be an astronaut. His training included intensive instruction in ISS systems, technical and scientific briefings, and physiological and wilderness survival training.
Dr. Satcher flew on STS-129 (31st Space Shuttle flight) to the International Space Station (ISS). During the mission, he performed two spacewalks for a total of 12 hours and 19 minutes and logged more than 259 hours in space.
The crew delivered nearly 30,000 pounds of replacement parts for ISS systems that provide power to the station and maintain proper orientation in space.
11. Joan Higginbotham
Mission launch: December 2006
Time in space: 12d 20h 45m
Joan Higginbotham joined NASA’s Johnson Space Center in 1996. She was assigned technical duties in the Kennedy Space Center Operations Support Branch and the Shuttle Avionics and Integration Laboratory, where she evaluated different modules of the ISS for compatibility, functionality, and operability prior to launch.
In 2006, Higginbotham flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-116 along with 7 crew members. She was responsible for operating the Space Station Remote Manipulator System. During this 12-day mission, she logged more than 308 hours in space.
Higginbotham was assigned to another Space Shuttle mission targeted for launch in 2008, but she took retirement from NASA in order to pursue a career in the private sector.
10. Bernard Harris Jr. – First black astronaut to walk in space
Mission launch: April 1993; February 1995
Time in space: 18d 06h 08m
A veteran astronaut, Dr. Bernard Anthony Harris, has logged over 438 hours and traveled more than 7.2 million miles in space. He was the first African-American to perform a spacewalk, during the second of his two Space Shuttle flights (STS-55 and STS-63).
On the STS-63 mission, he performed an extravehicular activity for 4 hours 39 minutes, testing spacesuit capabilities to keep spacewalkers warmer in the extreme cold of space.
While working at NASA, Harris conducted multiple studies on musculoskeletal physiology and clinical investigations of space adaptation. He also created in-flight medical instruments to increase astronaut stays in space.
9. Frederick Gregory – First African American to command a space flight
Mission launch: April 1985; November 1989; November 1991
Time in space: 18d 23h 04m
Born in 1941, Frederick Drew Gregory was raised in Washington DC and attended the US Air Force Academy, where he received his undergraduate degree in military engineering. During this period, he logged 7,000 hours in more than 50 types of aircraft as a test pilot.
In 1978, he was selected as an astronaut at NASA. He went to space on three different Space Shuttle missions between 1985 and 1991: STS-51B (as a pilot), STS-33, and STS-44 (as the spacecraft commander).
Gregory also served as a NASA Deputy Administrator and NASA Acting Administrator for a brief period in early 2005. His honors include the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement, the Defense Superior Service Medal, sixteen Air Medals, and two NASA Outstanding Leadership Medals.
8. Leland Melvin
Mission launch: February 2008; November 2009
Time in space: 23d 13h 28 m
Leland Melvin began working at NASA Langley Research Center in 1989. He performed a wide range of experiments to develop advanced instrumentation for nondestructive evaluation. In 1996, he designed an optical nondestructive evaluation facility that made it feasible to conduct advanced laser research for the development of aerospace and civil health monitoring systems.
A veteran of two spaceflights, STS-122 and STS-129, Melvin has logged more than 565 hours in space. He served as a mission specialist in both missions. The first mission delivered the European Columbus science laboratory, developed by the European Space Agency.
In the second mission, the crew delivered two large ExPRESS Logistics Carriers to ISS, which contained about 30,000 pounds of equipment, such as two nitrogen tank assemblies, an ammonia tank assembly, a high-pressure gas tank, two spare gyroscopes, and two pump modules.
7. Michael Anderson
Michael Anderson during the Space Shuttle Columbia mission
Mission launch: January 1998; January 2003
Time in space: 24d 14h 35m
Michael Phillip Anderson joined NASA’s Johnson Space Center in 1995. After completing one year of training and evaluation, he was initially assigned technical responsibilities in the Astronaut Office’s flight support branch.
He flew on STS-89 and STS-107, logging more than 593 hours in space. On the former Space Shuttle mission, he was a mission specialist, during which the crew delivered over 9,000 pounds of logistical hardware, scientific instruments, and water.
On the STS-107 Space Shuttle Columbia, Anderson served as payload commander. The crew performed over 80 scientific experiments. Unfortunately, on February 1, 2003, the spacecraft disintegrated during its re-entry into the Eath’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts.
Prior to the final launch of the spacecraft, Anderon told reporters,
“There’s always that unknown.”
6. Winston Scott – Performed three spacewalks
Image credit: NASA
Mission launch: January 1996; November 1997
Time in space: 24d 14h 35m
Winston Elliott Scott has accumulated over 6,000 hours of flight time in 25 different civilian and military aircraft, and more than 300 shipboard landings. In 1992, he was selected in NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
He served as a mission specialist on two Space Shuttle programs: STS-72 and STS-87. The former was a nine-day flight, during which he performed a seven-hour spacewalk to test hardware and tools to be used for assembling the International Space Station.
In the second mission, Scott conducted two extravehicular activities to test tools and procedures for future Space Station assembly. In both missions, he performed three spacewalks totaling 19 hours and 26 minutes. He also wrote a book, titled Reflections From Earth Orbit, to share his experiences in space.
5. Alvin Drew – 200th person to walk in space
Alvin Drew and Nicole Stott on the STS-133 mission
Mission launch: August 2007; February 2011
Time in space: 28d 8h 37m
Alvin Drew is a Command Pilot with more than 3,500 hours of flying experience. He has piloted 30 different types of aircraft. In 2000, he was selected by NASA as a mission specialist. After two years of training and evaluation, he was assigned technical duties in the Astronaut Office Station Operations Branch.
Drew has been involved in the Space Shuttle missions: the first was STS-118 and the second was STS-133. The former mission added two additional modules to the ISS and brought supplies for its crew.
On STS-133, the last flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery, Drew served as a mission specialist and performed two spacewalks, completing several tasks designed to upgrade station systems. While doing so, he became the 200th person to walk in space.
4. Charles Bolden – First black person to head NASA on a permanent basis
Bolden at US Marine Corps recruiting event (1982)
Mission launch: January 1986; April 1990; March 1992; February 1994
Time in space: 28d 8h 37m
Charles Bolden first graduated from the Naval Academy in 1968, but he almost did not make it into the academy simply because he was black. He has faced discrimination since his earliest days as a young man. In 2020, he spoke on racism in an interview, emphasizing that
“The systemic problem with racism in the United States is not something that started this year or last year or 10 years ago. This is what our nation was founded on.”
Bolden was selected by NASA in 1980, and one year later, he became an astronaut. He served on four space flights, including STS-61-C and STS-31, during which the crew deployed the SATCOM Ku band satellite and the Hubble Space Telescope, respectively.
On STS-45 and STS-60, he was the mission commander. The latter was the first joint American-Russian Space Shuttle mission, which carried the Wake Shield Facility experiment and a SPACEHAB module into orbit.
From July 2009 to January 2017, Bolden served as NASA administrator, leading a nationwide team to advance the mission and goals of the US space program.
3. Guion Bluford – First African American astronaut
Bluford on STS-8 in 1983
Mission launch: August 1983; October 1985; April 1991; December 1992
Time in space: 28d 16h 33m
Guion Bluford is the first African-American and the second person of African descent to travel into space. He became a NASA astronaut in 1979 and worked on several technical assignments, including Spacelab-3 experiments, Remote Manipulator System, and Space Shuttle systems.
Bluford took part in four Space Shuttle flights between 1983 and 1992. His first mission was STS-8, the eighth NASA Space Shuttle mission, in which the crew performed various crucial tasks, such as
- Tested Canada’s Shuttle Remote Manipulator System
- Deployed the Indian National Satellite
- Activated 4 ‘Getaway Special’ canisters
- Operated the Continuous Flow Electrophoresis System with live samples of cells
- Performed medical analysis to understand the bio-physiological effects of space flight
Blueford was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame (2019), the US Astronaut Hall of Fame (2010), and the International Space Hall of Fame (1997).
2. Robert Curbeam – Performed seven spacewalks
Mission launch: August 1997; February 2001; April 1991; December 2006
Time in space: 37d 14h 33m
Robert Curbeam joined NASA’s Johnson Space Center in 1995. After one year of training, he was assigned to the computer support branch in the Astronaut Office.
Curbeam went to space thrice between 1997 and 2006. His first mission was STS-85, during which the crew studied Earth’s atmosphere, deployed and retrieved the CRISTA-SPAS payload, and tested hardware developed to be used in the future ISS missions.
In the second Space Shuttle mission, STS-98, Curbeam performed three spacewalks, assembling the ISS module Destiny. During the third mission, STS-116, he performed four spacewalks to rewire the station’s electrical system and retract a sticking solar array. Doing so, the became the first person to carry out four spacewalks on a single mission.
1. Stephanie Wilson – Second black woman in space
Mission launch: July 2006; October 2007; April 2010
Time in space: 42d 23h 46m
Selected by NASA as an astronaut in 1996, Stephanie Wilson flew her first space shuttle mission, STS-121, in 2006, then flew subsequent missions STS-120 and STS-131 in 2007 and 2010. Her 1,032 hours in space are the most of any African American astronaut.
On STS-121, Wilson was responsible for the transfer of 28,000 pounds of supplies and instruments to the ISS. She supported the installation of Multi-Purpose Logistics Module and tested new procedures to increase the safety of space shuttles.
On her second mission, she delivered the Harmony module and reconfigured a segment of the station for future assembly missions. On STS-131, Wilson controlled robotics for spacewalking support using the space station robotic arm. She also installed Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, which contained over 6,000 pounds of hardware.
For her accomplishments, Wilson has been awarded the Young Outstanding Texas Exes Award (2005), three NASA Space Flight Medal (2006, 2007, 2010), and two NASA Distinguished Service Medal (2009, 2011).
Ed Dwight: is the first black person to have entered the Air Force training program. He made it to the second round but wasn’t selected by NASA to be an astronaut.
Robert Henry Lawrence Jr: become that first black astronaut, but was killed in a plane crash in 1967. Had he lived, he likely would have been among the astronauts selected by Air Force’s Manned Orbital Laboratory program, all of whom flew on the Space Shuttle.
Jeanette Epps: is the first African-American woman to have participated in CAVES, an astronaut training course in which astronauts are trained in a space-like cave environment. She has been assigned the Boeing Starliner-1 mission, planned to be launched in 2021.
Epps is set to join NASA astronauts Josh Cassada and Sunita Williams for a six-month expedition. She will be the first black woman to live aboard the ISS.
Victor Glover: Selected as an astronaut in 2013, he is currently training for Crew-1, the first post-certification mission of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. He is working closely with SpaceX to build new spacecraft systems that will provide roundtrip crew transportation services to the ISS.