I am so struck by this photo of the Kennedy Space Center Control Room on July 16, 1969 when Apollo 11 was launched. What do you see?
I see lots of white shirts and dark ties. I see eyes glued to a rocket launch happening outside their window. I see clunky computer consoles. I see white men. I see all white men – except for one woman dressed in black in the middle of the room. Her name is JoAnn Hardin Morgan and she is an aerospace engineer. Surely she was not the only woman in the whole USA with the chops to sit in that room, but she was the only one who got to be there. She is brilliant – clearly – and she also had connections that helped make this happen. (Her father worked at Cape Canaveral for the US Army rocket program.)
I wonder about the young boys and girls of color who were not encouraged to study math and science, whose school systems were diminished by Plessy v Ferguson. I wonder about all the girls who were discouraged from studying engineering, whose parents could not imagine any future that involved outer space, especially for their daughters.
There were women including – famously – women of color who helped make Apollo 11 a success fifty years ago. This is nothing short of miraculous that – in a culture where women’s roles were so limited – someone noticed geniuses among them who happened to be women. Katherine Johnson. Margaret Hamilton. Christine Darden. Poppy Northcutt. Joanne Thompson, Lillie Elliott, Ruth Anna Ratledge and Anna Lee Minner. And there were many more.
Surely there were men of color who also served NASA in those days, but I cannot find their names or their photographs. African American men, Japanese American men, and other men whose ancestors did not come from Europe were still considered dangerous in the 1960s. (And they are today in some communities.)
I wonder – as we see images of the great Apollo 11 moments this week – if our children and grandchildren will notice how white and male those images are. When I hear people say “make America great again” I wonder if those were the great days they are talking about.
They weren’t so great for women and people of color. Although there were extraordinarily gifted people who were not given the opportunity to share those gifts, we are so fortunate that – in these days – there are more opportunities for both women and all people of color. But we haven’t hit “greatness” yet. There are still structures and systems that keep some of the most talented people out of the room.
When we look at these photos, what do we see? Do we immediately notice who is not there?
Images of Kennedy Space Center Control Room on Apollo 11 Launch Day (top) and the great Dr. Christine Darden with a fan girl at Columbia Theological Seminary in 2017.