African American women have broken barriers in the aerospace industry for almost a century. For Womens History Month, we salute several pioneers in flight and spaceflight, pilots and astronauts.
In 1922, Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman secured her place in aviation history, becoming the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license. When she could not gain admittance to aviation school in this country, Coleman taught herself French and moved to France to pursue her dream. In just seven months, she received her pilot’s license. Returning to the States, she performed spectacular stunt flying and parachuting tricks. Coleman is also in the history books for the first public flight by a black woman.
Jill Brown Hiltz was the first black female pilot for a major airline. As a teenager, the entire Brown family took flying lessons and she was the first family member to receive her pilot’s license. At the age of 24, she became the first black female in the U.S. Navy flight training program. However, finding military life confining, she left with an honorable discharge after six months and went to work at Wheeler Airlines, the first black owned and operated airline in the country. Hiltz was hired by Texas International Airlines in 1978.
Mae Jemison earned degrees in chemical engineering and African-American studies at Stanford University, becoming fluent in Japanese, Russian and Swahili. She received a doctor of medicine degree from Cornell University and served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Liberia. When Jemison concluded her training in 1988, she became the fifth black astronaut, and the first black female astronaut, in the history of NASA. She completed her first flight in 1992, an eight-day mission STS-47 (launched September 12, 1992), where she logged 190 hours, 30 minutes and 23 seconds on the space shuttle Endeavor as a mission specialist – making her the first black woman to go into space.
Two other African American astronauts have actually flown in space, and two others are currently in NASA.
Stephanie Diana Wilson flew on her first mission in space on board the Space Shuttle mission STS-121, and is the second African American woman to go into space. She flew three missions: STS-121 (launched July 4, 2006); STS-120 (October 23, 2007); and STS-131 (April 5, 2010).
Joan Elizabeth Higginbotham flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-116 (December 9, 2006) as a mission specialist.
Yvonne Cagle was a member of the Astronaut Class of 1996 and is currently assigned to Johnson Space Center’s Space and Life Sciences Directorate. Dr. Cagle is also an advisor for NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program.
Jeanette Jo Epps was selected as an astronaut candidate in June 2009, and qualified as an astronaut in 2011. An engineer, a CIA intelligence officer, and current NASA astronaut, Epps holds a bachelor of science degree in physics from Le Moyne Owen College, and M.S. and Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland.