Published Online: February 3, 1999
Published in Print: February 3, 1999, as Media

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Space and Race: The participation of black Americans in the nation's space program is not news to close observers or the millions who were riveted by the space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986, which killed mission specialist Ronald McNair along with five other crew members.

But other educators and students might need to be reminded that the "right stuff" comes in black as well as every other skin tone, says the maker of a new 30-minute film, "Journey: The Black Astronaut."

William Marshall Jr., the writer and senior executive producer, said he made the film after a three-year stint as a publicist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration convinced him that the participation of blacks in the space program wasn't widely recognized.

The film will be aired by public television stations during this month, Black History Month, in: Chicago; Denver; Eureka, Calif.; Milwaukee; Nashville, Tenn.; New York City; Waco, Tex.; and Washington. Broadcasts in other cities are planned for later this year.

Produced by Marshall, Johnson & Torrey/Television and WHUT-TV at Howard University in Washington, the film knits together historical information and photographs, NASA footage of space missions, and original interviews with several black astronauts and expert observers.

They outline the debt that the six black astronauts in today's 119-strong astronaut corps owe to the Tuskegee Airmen, the segregated U.S. Army air-training unit set up in 1941. Surpassing expectations time and again, the airmen broke barriers in the military and were successful as fighter pilots in World War II before being disbanded in 1946.

One Tuskegee alumnus, Maj. Robert H. Lawrence, was the first black accepted into the astronaut-training program, in 1967. A month later, he was killed in a jet-training accident. In 1983, Guion S. Bluford Jr. became the first black American in space, aboard the space shuttle Challenger.

Although aware of the milestones, the retired black astronauts interviewed for the film seem more inspired by space than by race. Like other astronauts, they were energized by the teamwork with their mission colleagues, awed at seeing the Earth floating below them, and thrilled that they fulfilled their dreams.

As retired Brig. Gen. James T. Boddie Jr., a former Tuskegee airman as well as a former NASA aviation director, says in the film: "I'd like it to get to a point where [race] becomes invisible ... and all of a sudden, you don't see a black astronaut, you see an astronaut."

--Andrew Trotter atrotter@epe.org

Vol. 18, Issue 21, Page 12

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