African Americans in Astronomy and Space

The world of astronomy and space science is filled with pages full of men and women who made enormous contributions to the advancement of these studies and to the development of the space program as we know it now. A considerable number of those men and women are or were brilliant, innovative and influential African Americans.

Here are a few of those African American men and women whose contributions are wothy of notice.


Benjamin Banneker’s life began as a descendant of a long line of slaves who upon gaining their freedom, bought slaves, freed them, married one, and went on to have children. This was the case for Benjamin’s parents, grandparents, and he himself.

Banneker was largely a self educated man. His curiosity, raw intellect and perserverence helped him break free of his destiny as a farmer, first with a career as a clock maker and later as an astonomer. It was as a clock maker that he first gained notoriety because he is credited with creating and making the first wooden clock in America.

Thanks to the help of a neighbor who loaned him books, he was able to teach himself about mathematics and astronomy. Although his calculations contradicted the work of the experts of the day, he continued to insist that his work was correct. Ultimately, he went on to compile an ephemeris for “Benjamin Banneker’s Almanac.” The Almanac was published from 1791 to 1796. From this, he became known as the Sable Astronomer.

In 1791, Banneker sent Thomas Jefferson, who was then the Secretary of State, a copy of his Almanac. He also sent Jefferson an impassioned plea for justice on behalf of African Americans, and in doing so, reminded Jefferson that he and all of the other colonists were once the slaves of Britain.

Jefferson was so impressed by both the plea and the Almanac that he went so far as to send a copy of the Almanac to the Royal Academy of Science in Paris, as proof of Banneker’s talents and to show that blacks were not intellectually inferior to whites.


Born on February 7, 1923, Harvey Washington Banks received a B.S. degree in physics from Howard University in 1946. In 1948, he received an M.S. in physics, again from Howard University.

He went on to receive a PhD in Astronomy from Georgetown University in 1961, and earning the distinction of being the first African American to earn a PhD in Astronomy from Georgetown.

In 1967, he was appointed as a professor of astronomy and mathematics at Delaware State College, and he was also appointed as the director of the college’s observatory, serving both of the positions concurrently.

On September 1, 1969, he returned to his Alma Mater, Howard University where he became an Associate Professor of Astronomy. Two years later, in addition to his position as a professor of astronomy, he was awarded with an appointment as Associate Professor of Physics. He remained at these two positions until his death in 1979.


Born on October 2, 1935 in Chicago, Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. was the 1st African American Astronaut. He was accepted as an astronaut in June of 1967. The brilliant young Lawrence graduated from high school at the age of 16.

He went on to receive a B.S. degree in Chemistry from Bradley University of Peoria in 1956 at the age of 20. Upon graduation from Bradley University, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force. From there, he went on to earn a PhD in Physical Chemistry from Ohio State University in 1965.

On December 8, 1967, Lawrence and another officer went up in a F-104 Starfighter Jet for training. He was the co-pilot and passenger. The jet crashed at Edwards Air Force Base, and tragically, Lawrence never made it into space. Nonetheless, he still earned the distinction of being America’s first African American Astronaut.


Born on November 22, 1942 in Philadelphia to a mother who was a special education teacher and a father who was a mechanical engineer,Bluford earned the distinction of being the first African American in space.

Despite the fact that Bluford’s high school counselor deemed him unsuited for college (because that was the advice that was routinely given to all blacks,) he didn’t listen and went on to college, excelling while he was there.

He earned his B.S. degree in Aerospace Engineering in 1964. He was enrolled in ROTC while in college and attended flight school, earning his flying wings in 1966. From there, he was assigned to the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Ram Ranh Bay Viet Nam.

Upon returning from Viet Nam, he was stationed at Sheppard Air Force in Texas where he served briefly as a flight instructor before deciding to return to graduate school. He enrolled in the Air Force Institute of Technology, where he earned a MS degree with distinction in Aerospace Engineering. He then went on to receive a PhD, also in aerospace engineering, but with an additional minor in laser physics.

In 1978, Bluford learned that he was one of 35 astronaut candidate applicants who was chosen from a field of over 10,000 applicants. He entered the Astronaut Candidate Training Program and upon completion of the program in 1979, he became an astronaut. His first mission was aboard STS-8 on the Shuttle Challenger.

On August 30, 1983, the mission was launched at night, and it landed at night. It was the first night launch and the first night landing. This flight officially marked the occasion of the first African American Astronaut and the first African American to go into space. The first black man to go up into space was Cuban Colonel Arnaldo Tamayo-Mendez who went up on a Soviet Mission with Salyut 6 in 1980.

Colonel Guion Bluford went on to complete three more shuttle missions: STS 61-A, (again, on board the Shuttle Challenger, just months before the disaster,) and STS-39 and STS 53, both on board the Shuttle “Discovery. In 1987, Colonel Bluford earned an MBA from the University of Houston at Clear Lake. In 1993, he retired from NASA and the Air Force. He is currently working in the private sector.


Born on October 1, 1939 in Cleveland Ohio, George R. Carruthers grew up on the south side of Chicago. Carruthers enjoyed building model rockets and reading science fiction as a young boy.

After graduating from Englewood High School in 1957, he enrolled in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois, earning a B.S. in Physics in 1961 and an M.S. in Physics in 1962, earning both from the University of Illinois. He went on to receive a PhD in Aeronautical and Astronomical Engineering in 1964, again from the University of Illinois. His doctoral dissertation was on atomic nitrogen recombination.

Carruthers was an inventor as well as a scientist. His inventions as a scientist were so important that many went on to be used by NASA. One of his most important inventions went on board Apollo 16 and was ultimately placed on the moon by astronaut John W. Young.

He went on to invent many more important instruments, some of which were used by NASA on board some of the Space shuttles. He is also credited with introducing electronic telescopes onto NASA satellites. The telescopes transform light into electrical signals, making it possible to relay the signals to Earth to be televised.

Carruthers went on to win the Warmer Prize and the National Civil Service Exceptional Achievement Award, the Exceptional Achievement Scientific Award from NASA, and some other awards. In 2003, he was inducted into the National Inventor Hall of Fame in Akron Ohio. In 2004, he was selected as one of the 50 Most Important Blacks in Research Science.


Born and raised in New York, Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He is also a visiting research scientist and lecturer at Princeton University.

After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science, he went on to Harvard where he earned a B.A. in Physics and rowed on the crew team. He even joined the wrestling team.

DeGrasse Tyson went on to the University of Teas at Austin for his Master’s Degree before returning to New York City to do doctoral work at Columbia University, from which he earned a PhD in Astrophysics.

In 1996, Dr. DeGrasse Tyson became the first person to be designated the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, and in so doing he became, and currently is, the youngest director in the planetarium’s history.


Born on August 24, 1936 in Cleveland, Dr. Walker died on August 29, 2001 at the age of 64 after a long and courageous battle with cancer. Although he was born in Cleveland, his father moved the family to New York so that he could set up his own law practice.

Walker’s mother was his biggest champion, starting out by encouraging him to take the test for admission to the Bronx High School of Science. Upon graduation from that school, he went on to Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, earning a B.S. degree in Physics with honors from Case in 1957.

He then went on to pursue graduate work, earning a MS. in 1958 and a PhD in 1962, both in Physics and both from the University of Illinois.

In 1962, after receiving his PhD, he joined the U.S. Air Force where he was commissioned as a First Lieutenant, with his first assignment to the Air Force Weapons Lab where he made some significant scientific contributions.

After completing his military obligation and working for some time in corporate America, he later became a professor at Stanford University. He was also the director of Stanford’s student observatory.

It was his efforts that led Stanford to the distinction of being the leading major research university in the country for educating under represented groups of graduate students in physics. Interestingly, one of his graduate students was Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

A great inventor, Walker was able to combine the research of others to create his telescopes that could be used by NASA. In 1991, over the course of two flights, he launched a total of 33 telescopes in NASA’s Multi-Spectral Solar Telescope Array or MSSTA.

There are many other outstanding African Americans who have made very significant contributions to both astronomy and space, including several important women such as Barbara A. Williams, PhD, Beth A. Brown, PhD and Dr. Mae Jamison, a medical doctor.

The accomplishments of these outstanding people proves that astronomy, physics, aerospace engineering and all of the fields related to our efforts in space know no boundaries. Part of that proof lies in the evidence we find from some of the earliest American astronomers, namely, Benjamin Banneker.