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‘We Could Not Fail’: The experiences of the first African Americans in the space program

When most people recall monumental moments of the civil rights era, what events often come to mind? The Montgomery Bus Boycott? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech?

What about NASA?

During the peak of civil rights conflict in America, Russia’s victory of sending the first human to outer space and other competing foreign affairs, NASA became part of President John F. Kennedy’s plan to usher in a new era for the country. In an attempt to put a man on the moon, Kennedy decided to integrate African-American scientists, engineers and mathematicians into the space program to boost its chances.

Richard Paul and Steven Moss, co-authors of the book “We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program,” chronicled the lives of some of the first African-Americans of NASA.

“Kennedy realized he couldn’t get a civil rights bill passed because of the politics in Congress at the time,” Moss explained. “So, early in his administration, he issues Executive Order 10925 (Equal Employment Opportunity) and this is where we get the idea of affirmative action, ending the discrimination in federal contracting.”

The executive order opened the door for black NASA employees such as Charlie Smoot, NASA’s first black recruiter, and Julius Montgomery, an engineer who repaired missiles.

Although a gripping decision, integrating the space program did not come without strife.

“Julius comes to Cape Canaveral in the mid-1950s at a time when the Ku Klux Klan controlled that part of Florida,” Paul explained. “There were Klansmen who were aldermen, city councilmen and businessmen. So, Julius [reported] to work on his first day probably knowing that most of the men in his work group were going to be Klansmen.”

“NASA’s employment of African Americans throughout the 1960s averaged about three percent,” Moss added. “It’s made strides, with African-American astronauts and contributions, and they have African-American employees now that they would not have had 40 and 50 years ago.”

The contributions to NASA from African-American workers have been “as great and as small as every other NASA employee,” Paul said. Some of the most notable contributions came from people like Morgan Watson, who helped design the heat shields for the Saturn V rocket, Clyde Foster, who ended NASA’s white-only advancement training program, and George Carruthers, who built the first telescope camera that was set up on another planetary body.

“What these individuals did was achieve a civil rights victory by showing up to work every day, and operating at the very highest level of American science and technology,” Paul said. “One of the people we [wrote] about told us that, ‘We thought that the entire image of black people in America was riding on us, and we could not fail.’ The title of our book ‘We Could Not Fail’ comes from that idea.”

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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