By Tim Fernholz
It could have been a better day for Isaac Mensah.
A Black robotics engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and a former astronaut trainer, Mensah and his wife watched eagerly on May 30 as Americans flew to orbit from the US for the first time since 2011. It wasn’t just a debut for SpaceX’s new Dragon space capsule, but the first launch witnessed by Mensah’s young son.
“Of course, being 16-months old, his attention was held for about three minutes before he was off to play with one of his toys, but it was still a special moment for me!” Mensah told Quartz. “However, I can’t say I was able to completely celebrate it. My mind kept wondering how my son would have to deal with racism when he gets older.”
For anyone watching the historic launch, it was impossible to ignore the contrast of the high-tech pageantry at Kennedy Space Center and demonstrations against police violence taking place across the country. Black professionals in the aerospace industry who spoke with Quartz shared this mix of pride and dejection, underscored by a still-open question: Will a mostly-white field with a history of celebrating symbolic racial firsts now make meaningful changes in the way it treats Black people?
Like too many science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, the aerospace sector in the United States is populated mainly by white people. Many Black engineers told Quartz they are the few people of color in design reviews or seminars. In 2016, according to the National Science Foundation, just 3.6% of undergraduate all engineering degrees were awarded to Black students, who also accounted for fewer than 9% of computer science degrees and fewer than 5% of physical sciences degrees.
Naia Butler-Craig is working toward a doctorate in aerospace engineering, with the goal of eventually becoming an astronaut herself.
“I was overwhelmed with tears because I felt I witnessed a great technological feat. And I understood what this meant for the future of human space exploration,” she told Quartz.
But then she opened Twitter and was confronted with the juxtaposition of the launch and the often violent police response to demonstrators reacting to the killing of George Floyd. “Reality sunk back in,” she added.
The bitterest irony is how much events echoed the peak of the US space program, with the Apollo moon missions set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. Activists marched on Kennedy Space Center before the first moon landing.
NASA has worked to recognize past inequities, particularly around the Black women whose unsung role in the moon mission was revealed in the book and movie “Hidden Figures.” But the first Black woman in space, Mae Jemison, was roughed up by a white police officer who pulled her over in 1996 and suffered no consequences.
Now, Black engineers and researchers are watching to see how leaders in the field react to the latest episodes of police violence against Black people, and taking note of those who stay silent or limit their response to internal communications.
One major aerospace contractor sent a company-wide email about the demonstrations, calling for solidarity and empathy, an employee told Quartz. “What was lacking and what I would’ve liked to see was a simple ‘Black Lives do Matter,'” the employee said. “Why is it so hard to share that statement?”
NASA leaders have not spoken out specifically about the treatment of black people in America since the protests began. The CEO of Boeing, the largest aerospace firm in the US, shared a message condemning prejudice, as did the president of SpaceX, which flew the astronauts on Saturday. But other aerospace giants, like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon have not addressed the demonstrations publicly.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk addressed the killing of George Floyd on his Twitter account, calling for officers who stood by while a fourth knelt on Floyd’s neck to also be charged. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a leading American trade group, said its members should support more outreach to African American and other minority communities.
“I’m more interested in the programmatic and systemic changes these companies make after this is no longer a trending topic,” said Butler-Craig, the doctoral student. Many people who spoke to Quartz for this story noted the existence of myriad policy proposals that would protect Black Americans and simply require the political will to be enacted.
In aerospace, it starts with long-overdue changes. For years, many have called for an end to all-white speaker panels at the conferences that give the industry its annual rhythm. Another goal is expanding recruitment of new workers beyond traditional feeder schools to historically black colleges and universities, which produce more Black graduates with STEM degrees.
“If NASA recruited at HBCUs as much as it recruited from majority white schools, I think you’d see more black applicants to the positions they have open,” Mensah said. “The same goes for the contractors.”
Mykaela Dunn, a recent graduate of University of Texas, Austin, watched the Dragon launch on the way to a protest. She said being one of few Black graduates in her class was a “bit off-putting,” but her participation in the Brooke Owens Fellowship, which places women in internships with space companies, offered her a supportive community.
She hasn’t found a similar space for Black aerospace students, but plans to make that outreach part of her own career. “Having role models in place when you’re younger helps to make you not feel alone,” she said.
People in the Black aerospace community didn’t miss that NASA and SpaceX tapped two Black hosts for their live-streamed launch program, retired astronaut Leland Melvin and SpaceX engineer Lauren Lyons.
“There aren’t many black folks in aerospace or in the sciences and for those two overly-qualified individuals to host one of the biggest events in space history spoke volumes,” Rabb Muhammad, a Black naval aviator with a passion for space, told Quartz. “It is big for my son not just to see his dad in the cockpit, but to be surrounded by a community of like-minded individuals who also look like him.”
And, assuming SpaceX and NASA okay the vehicle, the next Dragon launch will fly a Black man, astronaut Victor Glover, to the International Space Station; he will become just the 16th Black astronaut out of 340 launched by the US.
Danielle Wood is working toward more fundamental change—connecting aerospace engineering directly to anti-racism. Wood grew up near the space coast watching launches from Cape Canaveral, and is now a professor leading the Space Enabled Research Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has developed a research agenda to “advance justice in earth’s complex systems using designs enabled by space.”
“Our team has been doing research that addresses racial inequity,” she told Quartz. “You don’t have to leave aerospace to be confident you’re working against injustice, but you do have to change the way you’re doing the aerospace work.”
A systems engineer by training, Wood notes that the field requires understanding math and physics, but also the human factors that play into any complex technology. What engineers all too often forget, from the development of the sailing vessels that drove global colonization to today, is to consider who benefits and who suffers due to their use.
Her team is working on projects in this vein—to give NGOs and governments in poor countries access to satellite data that will allow them to better serve their communities; to come up with rules to make space sustainable by avoiding environmental pollution; to expand access to space research facilities like the ISS beyond the richest universities in the richest country in the world.
“What I really want to beg everyone is [that] we don’t allow this moment in our US history to be part of the cycle we are on,” Wood said.
That, in turn, will depend mostly on white Americans choosing to make fixing systemic racism a priority. But American society rarely moves at anything near the speed of a rocket launch.