NASA and Integration During the Civil Rights Movement

12:17 minutes

Christine Darden in the control room of NASA Langley's Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel in 1975. Photo by NASA
Christine Darden in the control room of NASA Langley’s Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel in 1975. Photo by NASA

Morgan Watson started working at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in 1964. He described it as “its own little world.” But the facility, located in Huntsville, Alabama, was mere hours from Selma and Montgomery—two prominent battlegrounds in the Civil Rights Movement. Watson himself contributed to a little known piece of Civil Rights era history: He was one of NASA’s first African American engineers. He’s profiled in the book We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program, by Steven Moss and Richard Paul.

Racial integration occurred at NASA facilities throughout the South in the 1960s. Christine Darden, for example (pictured above), was an African-American mathematician who joined the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia in 1967. Watson and Darden, along with Steven Moss, join Science Friday to discuss the work of African-American scientists at NASA during the Civil Rights Movement.

Segment Guests

Steven Moss

Steven Moss is author of We Could Not Fail (University of Texas Press, 2015) and an associate professor at Texas State Technical College in Waco, Texas.

Morgan Watson

Morgan Watson is founder and president of Minority Engineers of Louisiana in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Christine Darden

Christine Darden is former director of the Office of Strategic Communications and Education at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, a look at new dietary guidelines that put eggs back on the menu. But first, we take a look at two major moments in American history– the civil rights movement and the space program– that crossed paths. The 1960s and the civil rights movement saw a push to actively recruit African American scientists and integrate NASA facilities across the South. It’s a story that a lot of us may never have heard about until this new book by Steven Moss. Steven Moss is co-author of We Could Not Fail, a book that explores this era of NASA’s history. He’s also an associate professor at Texas State Technical College in Waco, and joins us from KWBU. Welcome to Science Friday.

STEVEN MOSS: Hi, thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. I want to bring on a couple folks who were profiled in your book. Morgan Watson was one of the first African American engineers to join the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama in 1964. He is currently president of the Minority Engineers of Louisiana in Baton Rouge. Welcome to Science Friday.

MORGAN WATSON: Thank you, sir.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s get into this right away, Steve. Tell us what role NASA had in racial integration during the civil rights movement.

STEVEN MOSS: Well, it had a similar role to all of the other federal agencies in following federal policies. The Kennedy administration really started this along in March of 1961 with Executive Order 10925, which would require contractors and federal agencies to look at their employment practices. And then in April and May of 1961, we really get the combination of these two forces. April 20th, after the Bay of Pigs seems to have been a failure, President Kennedy calls in Vice President Johnson, find something to do with space. And then in May we have the first American in space. We have the Freedom Rides starting, and eventually we have the end of May with Kennedy’s speech, we’re going to put a man on the moon.

So in a period of a month–


STEVEN MOSS:–we from no one in space to a declaration of a national goal for the moon.

IRA FLATOW: As part of that goal, did NASA have an official policy to recruit African American scientists in the ’60s?

STEVEN MOSS: It had the same policies that would apply to all the other federal agencies, but, in particular, because it was located in the South, it became sort of a cutting-edge agency. It was a new agency.

IRA FLATOW: And it had all of this exposure.

STEVEN MOSS: That it could advance civil rights.

IRA FLATOW: Because it was part of the space race, everybody was paying attention to it, right?

STEVEN MOSS: Yes, exactly, and being in Alabama with George Wallace, there was no way NASA could not, at least in Alabama, have become a focus of civil rights as well.

IRA FLATOW: Morgan Watson, how did you start working at NASA in the ’60s, and what did you do there?

MORGAN WATSON: Well, I started working in early 1964. I was a student at Southern University at the time, and they were training us in the engineering profession. I was an Engineering major, and they came to Southern University to recruit us. That’s how I started working at NASA.

When I got to NASA, I started working in the quality assurance area, and that involved testing all of the components of the booster and the instrument unit and all the other parts of the rocket and to assure quality, to make sure that everything would function under various conditions.

IRA FLATOW: So what kind of a reaction did you get from NASA employees in the South there, as one of the first African American engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center?

MORGAN WATSON: Well, there was some skepticism where we had to prove ourselves. I guess that we were worthy of the title of engineers but that was no problem at all, since we had studied the courses in our profession, and we were looking for opportunities to apply what we knew, so we were very eager to show what we knew, just as eager as they were to find out what we knew. So it was a good match. It worked well. We didn’t encounter any professional discrimination or any discrimination within the engineering profession, and we were given jobs. We did the job, and that was it.

IRA FLATOW: I want to also bring in Christine Darden. She is former director of the Office of Strategic Communications and Education as NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia and an African American mathematician, who began her career at Langley in 1967. Welcome to Science Friday..

CHRISTINE DARDEN: Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about what your first job was at NASA.

CHRISTINE DARDEN: When I was hired at NASA, I was hired as a computer, and that was often a group of ladies who did calculations in support of the engineers.

IRA FLATOW: So you were called a computer because you were–

CHRISTINE DARDEN: Yes, the ladies were actually called computers. Actually, when I got there, they were using mechanical Friden calculators to calculate numbers from long equations and fill out large grid sheets very often.

IRA FLATOW: So you were involved in programming?

CHRISTINE DARDEN: They were just beginning to do computer programming when I got there. They had just gotten an IBM program, and I started programming. But a lot of the women in the office still used the mechanical Friden.

IRA FLATOW: Did you ever get to meet Grace Hopper?


IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about what your reaction was. What was the reaction to you working at NASA there?

CHRISTINE DARDEN: Well, the reaction was actually pretty good. I think there were a lot of employees who were dissatisfied with the promotions they got and the advances that they got in their jobs, and I think I was actually a little– after a year or so, I was dissatisfied with the assignment that I got because I had a master’s degree in Applied Mathematics, with a minor in Physics when I went there. And typically, the men who came there with the same degree were assigned to engineering sections and were given their own projects to work on, and I thought that that was a little bit of discrimination in how maybe the assignments were made.

IRA FLATOW: Did you feel the effects of protests during the civil rights movements at NASA? Did you feel them there?

CHRISTINE DARDEN: No, not in NASA itself. Things were actually pretty quiet there. But there, as I said, there was just some grumbling among some of the employees about the assigments they got, the advances that they made and things like that. But all in all, the jobs at NASA were still some of the best jobs in the area.

IRA FLATOW: Morgan Watson, do you agree?

MORGAN WATSON: Well, I didn’t experience any of the promotion discomfort because we were not there long enough to get promotions. I worked for NASA for a total of two years and of course, on the civil service scale, we advanced as we should. So I didn’t really have a problem with any of that. As far as knowing that the civil rights movement was going on, I was in Alabama, and we all had a saying among ourselves, when you step outside of Huntsville, then you’re in Alabama. So it was a difference between what went on at NASA at the Redstone Arsenal, which is at the same location, and what went on an in Alabama itself. So it was a pretty smooth and pretty tranquil place to work.

IRA FLATOW: Did you see any change over the years that you worked there? Let me ask both of you, Christine?

CHRISTINE DARDEN: Well, I saw great change. I saw change made for both the female employee and the African American employees. I saw change in my own career. Because once I protested about my assignment, I was actually moved to an engineering section and worked in research for 25 years, and then I went into management and actually retired as an executive in one of the leadership positions.

IRA FLATOW: And Stephen, what about that?


IRA FLATOW: Were there great changes over the years at NASA?

STEVEN MOSS: NASA tried. NASA did try to recruit and, as Mr. Watson talked about with the co-ops, there were some changes in the make up. But recruiting black engineers and black technicians in the South, especially for some of them to come in from the North, was a hard sell. But I’d like to follow with something that Mr. Watson said that when you step out of Huntsville, you’re in Alabama. He has a story about he and so this friend stop at a gas station or a diner, and I think that’s really indicative of what he said, that at NASA, you’re under the federal nondiscrimination, but outside of the facility, you are in Alabama, and I’m hoping he can tell that story.

MORGAN WATSON: Well, yes, we had several incidents outside of the Marshall Space Flight Center. And the neighboring towns, Decatur and Athens, whenever you would go there, you always knew you were in Alabama, let me put it that way, based on how the restrooms were situated and just generally how you were treated. Within Huntsville itself, the town of Huntsville, was still segregated, and we could not live in the apartments or the hotels or any of the housing of that type, so we had live in the community. And, of course, we fit into the community very well. We’d come from a similar community back in Louisiana. So there was no difference from that standpoint– the churches, the people, interfacing with the people, and that kind of thing. But you just try and do things that will be a little different, then you would get attention called to you.

IRA FLATOW: It’s a little ironic; you we were a black man working in the segregated South. You were also working in the same shop run by Wernher von Braun, who worked for the Nazis during World War II. Did the irony of that ever strike you?

MORGAN WATSON: Well, not really because I read his story, and he was a scientist just like Albert Einstein, and he was more recognized for his brain power than his social political standing, and I think he was pretty neutral there. Either way, he was in Germany. The Nazi regime was there. He worked for the government, and that was it. He did what he was supposed to do, and I guess the government did what they were supposed to do. That never bothered me at all, to tell you the truth.

I thought it was– if you look on the horizon, if you could look on the horizon and visualize what will be in the future, you could see that that would be certainly some tranquility of peace on the professional as well as on the racial scene in the deep South. I might say, when I first went to Huntsville, the only black employees there were yard people, janitor, and that kind of thing. There were no black clerical workers or anything.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I’m going to have to cut you off because people could read more about you and Christine Darden and Steve Moss’s book We Could Not Fail. It’s a book that explores this era of Nazi– of NASA’s history. I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

MORGAN WATSON: Thank you very much.


IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Good luck to you.

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