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The Black Space Experience

Expert Author William Sutherland

By William Sutherland, Science Relief Contributor

The roots of the black space experience date back some 8,500 years when the first lunar calendar was crafted from a bone. Like ancient peoples elsewhere in the world, Africans (sub-Saharan black peoples) “shared the same inspiration and awe of the stars” and “struggled to make sense of it [through] creativity and intelligence” [1] patiently taking “countless generations to watch, justify and map the heavens”[2] and define their relationship with them. According to Dr. Thebe Medupe, a prominent astronomer at the University of Cape Town and the South African Astronomical Observatory, “[Africans] shaped constellations out of stellar patterns and came up with stories about them, …constructed calendars to organize their lives and even erected stone alignments… to follow the sun’s ‘path’ throughout the year.”[3] It was for this reason that Bernard Harris, Jr., the first black astronaut to walk in space stated, “When we look at history itself, you realize that astronomy – the study of the stars – that whole origin… [was] being done by people from Africa. And now I get to fly amongst those same stars” when emphasizing the importance of knowing and understanding history – “If you don’t know where you are and where you came from, you’ll never know where you are going.”[4]

African societies dating back to the ancient times relied on “the stars to predict the likelihood of rain, so they could prepare the land”[5] for planting, for migration (e.g. the Bozo people of Mali “migrate along the delta of the Niger river when the Pleiades transit overhead and begin their fishing season when the Pleiades leave the night sky”[6]) and navigation as well as for determining points in time, leading to the construction of megalith (large stone) observatories and the development of lunar-based calendars, all of which were critical since for them, “knowledge about the movement of the stars [was] a matter of life and death.”[7]
Accordingly the Moon and the stars had a special place in African societies. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) “the Milky Way is called ‘God’s clock’ [since] it is orientated east-west during the wet season and… north-south during the middle of the dry season.[8] At the same time, in “central Nigeria… a strong correlation [is] observed between the tilt of the points on the crescent moon and rainfall. As points tilt to the right, dramatic increases in rain[fall occur and] as points tilt to the left, dramatic decreases in rainfall [occur].[9]
Two famous African megaliths that made use of astronomy are Nabta, built between 5500 B.C. and 3500 B.C. by Central African nomads in southern Egypt near the modern-day border with Sudan and Namoratunga II, which was erected in 300 B.C. (aligned to the 7 stars of the Borana calendar – Triangulum, Pleiades, Aldebarran, Belletrix, Orion, Saiph, and Sirius)[10]and stands near Kenya’s Lake Turkana. Based on archeological data, Nabta consisting of “stones aligned with the different rising positions of the Sun… (caused by the Earth’s rotation) [used] to determine the seasons”[11] is perhaps the oldest astronomical alignment in the world, 1,000 years older than Stonehenge. At the same time archeological finds indicate that the Mursi of Ethiopia and Kushites and Bambara of Sudan were also influenced by and “interested in horizon and zenith (sunrise and sunset) events”[12] as were the peoples inhabiting Benin, Togo, and Zimbabwe.
In Benin and Togo, “the Batamalimba people designed their houses such that their crossbeams [were] aligned to the equinox sunrise and sunset” while the Karanga people constructed “a chevron pattern bisected by the solstice Sun” in the Great Zimbabwe stone city that was built around A.D. 400 and completed about A.D. 1350 to mark “important astronomical seasonal events.”[13] In addition, the Pyramids of Meroë built in Kush (now part of Sudan) and the more than 1600 stone circles discovered to date in the lands comprising the Gambia, Senegal and Togo are likely further examples of African archaeoastronomy.
In conjunction with the construction of megaliths, African societies ranging from southern Africa to sub-Saharan northern Africa, also developed calendars based on the lunar cycle. The oldest such calendar, the Ishango bone, dating back to 6500 B.C. that “was found at the site of a fishing village on the shores of Lake Edward which borders the [Democratic Republic of] Congo (DRC) and Uganda”[14] and is believed to have been used for predicting tidal phenomena. At the same time, another early lunar calendar based on a series of concentric circles ranging in number from 29 to 30 was found in “certain caves in Tanzania.”[15]
Even today several African peoples use lunar calendars. Examples are the Borana of southern Ethiopia and northwest Kenya, the Mursi of Ethiopia, the Ngas of Nigeria, and the Dogon of Mali, each of whom either adds an extra month consisting of 11 days at the end of the year or a 33-day month at the end of each third year to compensate for the difference that arises from the 365.25 day solar year (period of time it takes the Earth to complete one revolution around the Sun) in which there are 12 lunar cycles (period of time ranging from the first rise of the new moon to the final setting of the full moon) consisting of 29.5 days each. The Ngas use the term “bergu” for each 29.5-day month and “gamwe” to describe the final 11 days that follow the 12th and last “bergu” of each year. In addition, some peoples in South Africa “still use the same word for month and moon”[16] because of their connotative relationship.
Because of their interest in the heavens and their attempt to create intelligible frameworks around them, Africans also developed myths and legends surrounding celestial bodies and constellations. “The Pleiades and Sirius figure largely in the star lore of the peoples of Mali and Ethiopia… The Milky Way… and Venus… are focused on all over Africa, while the Southern Cross is important to the Zulu, Sotho, and Tswana [peoples] of southern Africa and… recognized as a navigation constellation.”[17]
Examples of these African myths and legends are as follows: The Bushmen who inhabit southern Africa “believe the Milky Way was made by a Bushman girl who wished for a little light and threw wood ashes into the sky [creating] different colored stars by throwing different colored burning roots into the air. [There are also two other stories. One involves] two stars of the Southern Cross, Alpha and Gamma Crucis… The creator had two sons called Khanka and Khoma. One day the two boys went hunting with a family of lions, but the treacherous lions ate the boys. In his anger and despair, the creator made fire and hid it in a meteor disguised as an eland’s horn. The creator called down the meteor and it hit [and killed] the lion. [Afterwards the creator’s] heart was calmed and there was fire for everyone. Khanka and Khoma are Alpha Crucis and Gamma Crucis. [The next is about Pleiades and the three stars of the Orion Belt, in which] …seven daughters of the sky god (Pleiades) were married to a hunter. One evening [he] went hunting [for] zebras (the three stars of Orion’s Belt). He was such a bad hunter that his arrow missed, and because he was afraid of the nearby lion (Betelgeuse, another star) he left the arrow where it lay (now known as Orion’s sword). [Afterwards, being] …too embarrassed to [return] home to his wives because he did not have meat to bring to them, …he [stayed] out… in the cold as the star called Aldebaran.”[18]
In addition to merely studying astronomy, developing lunar calendars, and creating myths and legends about the heavens, Africans also exchanged information and ideas with Islamic scientists following the establishment of protected trade routes in the areas encompassing Mali, Mauritania and Senegal. The peak of this exchange occurred during the rule of the Ghana, Mali and Songhay empires (c. A.D. 1200-A.D. 1591) when Islamic traders traveled to African cities in search of gold, the economic standard of their lands after Iranian scholar, Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadhani wrote in c. A.D. 900:
It is said that beyond the source of the Nile is darkness and beyond the darkness are waters which make the gold grow… to the town of Ghana is a three-months’ journey through deserts. In the country of Ghana gold grows in the sand as carrots do, and is plucked at sunrise.[19]
During the height of this trans-Saharan trade, Islamic scholars established learning centers and introduced the written language, resulting in the creation of thousands of African books pertaining to astronomy and science.
However, it was not until late in the 20th century, some two decades after the United States and the now defunct Soviet Union (USSR) had begun their manned space programs, that descendents of these early African astronomers actually made it into space, much in part due to the efforts of Luke Weathers (b. A.D. 1920), a black World War II veteran with a degree in science and biology and others who had “pressured the U.S. military to train a corps of black pilots at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama… to prove that black Americans… could handle the most challenging… jobs.”[20]
This led to June A.D. 1967 when another pilot, Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. (A.D. 1935-A.D. 1967) with over 2,500 flight hours behind him, successfully completed the Air Force’s Flight Test Pilot Training School at Edwards Air Force Base in California and was named the first African-American astronaut. “Though he never made it into space”[21] dying on December 8th when the F-104 Starfighter piloted by a trainee whom he was instructing crashed, Major Lawrence had participated in the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) Program, a project that “would eventually lead to today’s International Space Station.”[22]
Despite the setback, blacks were not going to be denied their place in space. Following the success of the Civil Rights movement, new opportunities emerged much in part due to improved education and equal opportunity chances. As a result greater numbers of blacks enrolled and were accepted into America’s space program.
History was made on September 18, A.D. 1980 when Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez (b. A.D. 1942), a Cuban of black-hispanic heritage was launched into space as part of the Soyuz 38 crew. “After docking with Salyut 6, Tamayo (a Cuban Air Force pilot) and [his partner Yuri] Romanenko (b. A.D. 1944) conducted experiments in an attempt to find [the cause] of space sickness, and… a cure.”[23] He spent 188 hours and 43 minutes in space before returning to Earth on September 26, A.D. 1980.
This was followed by the August 30, A.D. 1983 launch of Guion “Guy” Bluford (b. A.D. 1942), a U.S. Air Force Colonel who had majored in aerospace engineering and minored in laser physics, aboard the space shuttle Challenger on the STS-8 mission which lasted 145 hours. Upon entering space during the worlds’ first night launch, Guy Bluford became the first African-American astronaut to make the trip.
Afterwards Guy Bluford participated in three additional missions – STS-61-A (October 30-November 6, A.D. 1985 aboard Challenger), STS-39 (April 28-May 6, A.D. 1991 aboard Discovery), and STS-53 (December 2-December 9, A.D. 1992 aboard Discovery). During his career, Col. Bluford who retired from active space duty in 1993, amassed 28 days, 16 hours and 33 minutes in space. Since then Col. Bluford has been inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame (A.D. 1997) and “has spoken before many groups… where he serves as a role model,” all possible because his mother, a teacher, and father, an engineer, had encouraged him and his three brothers to “set their goals high” and because he ignored a school counselor’s advice to”learn a trade, since he was not college material.”[24]
The next black astronaut to make history was Dr. Mae Jemison (b. A.D. 1956), the daughter of a maintenance worker (her father) and teacher (her mother) who earned a BS in Chemical Engineering, a BA in African-American studies, and a doctorate in medicine. Notably, during her years in medical school and participation in the Peace Corps she had provided medical care to persons in Cuba, Kenya, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Thailand.
When the space shuttle Endeavor was launched on September 12, A.D. 1992, Dr. Jemison became the first African-American woman in space. Following her 7 day, 22 hour, 30 minute mission aboard Endeavor as a mission specialist (STS-47 September 12-20, A.D. 1992), Jemison retired from space flight to found The Jemison Group “to research, develop and implement advanced technologies suited to the social, political, cultural and economic context of the individual, especially for the developing world.”[25] Yet despite her post NASA pursuits, Dr. Jemison in following the encouragement and support given by her parents, consistently encourages African-Americans to pursue scientific careers especially with the space program – “This is the one time when we can get in on the ground floor.”[26]
A third history making black astronaut was Dr. Bernard A. Harris, Jr. (b. A.D. 1956), a private pilot and flight surgeon with a doctorate in medical science and a master’s degree in biomedical science who had dreamed “to look down on the clouds” since he was 8. “I was watching what was happening with the space program, watching these guys go up… people called them American heroes. I wanted to be a hero too,” he declared when thinking back to the infancy of the U.S. space program.[27] On February 9, A.D. 1995, Dr. Harris became the first African-American to walk in space when he and astronaut Michael Foale (b. A.D. 1957) “made a five hour space walk to test thermal improvements in space suits and to hoist a 2,800 pound telescope that would aid… efforts to design [the] International Space Station.”[28] Afterwards, he reflected back to 1963, perhaps the most pivotal year in the Civil Rights movement (e.g. the march on Washington, D.C. where Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous “I have a dream” speech in August, the Birmingham Church bombing a month later that martyred four young black girls, etc.) stating, “Those were some of the best times and worst times. Here on this planet we were fighting for human rights and at the same time we were sending men to the moon.”[29] Appropriately, Dr. Harris dedicated his space walk, which he described as “probably the most wonderful day of my life”[30] to “all African-Americans and to African American achievement.”[31]
During his astronaut career, Dr. Bernard Harris, Jr. took part in two missions – STS-55 (April 26-May 6, A.D. 1993 aboard Columbia as a mission specialist conducting “a variety of research in physical and life sciences”[32]) and STS-63 (February 2-11, A.D. 1995 aboard Discovery as payload commander) logging 18 days, 6 hours and 8 minutes in space. Like Bluford, Dr. Harris also serves as an inspiration encouraging “children of all races to follow his example – ‘Don’t be afraid to dream… Get… an education. Be willing to work hard. If you do these three things, there is nothing that you can’t do in life.’”[33]
In addition to the above-mentioned African-American astronauts, others have also pursued and made the journey to and from space. In the process, two – Ronald E. McNair, Ph.D. and Col. Michael A. Anderson, made the ultimate sacrifice – giving up their lives in quest of scientific exploration and discovery for the benefit of humanity. Summaries of these inspirational astronauts are listed below:
Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson (A.D. 1959-A.D. 2003) amassed 24 days, 18 hours, and 8 minutes in space, participating in STS-89 (January 22-31, A.D. 1998 aboard Endeavor) and STS-107 (January 16-February 1, A.D. 2003 aboard Columbia). Tragically Lt. Col. Anderson lost his life when the “space shuttle Columbia and her crew perished during entry, 16 minutes before scheduled landing”[34] at Cape Canaveral.
Charles F. Bolden, Jr. (b. A.D. 1946) amassed 28 days, 8 hours, and 37 minutes in space, participating in STS-61-C (January 12-18, 1986 aboard Columbia), STS-31 (April 24-29, A.D. 1990 aboard Discovery), STS-45 (March 24-April 2, A.D. 1992 aboard Atlantis as the first African-American mission commander), and STS-60 (February 3-11, A.D. 1994 aboardDiscovery).
Robert L. Curbeam, Jr. (b. A.D. 1962) amassed 24 days, 17 hours, and 49 minutes in space, participating in STS-85 (August 7-19, A.D. 1997 aboard Discovery) and STS-98 (February 7-20, 2001 aboard Atlantis).
Col. Frederick D. Gregory (b. A.D. 1941) amassed 18 days, 23 hours, and 4 minutes in space, participating in STS-51-B (April 29-May 6, A.D. 1985 aboard Challenger), STS-33 (November 22-27, A.D. 1989 aboard Discovery), and STS-44 (November 24-December 1, A.D. 1991 aboard Atlantis).
Ronald E. McNair, Ph.D. (A.D. 1950-A.D. 1986) amassed 7 days, 23 hours, and 15 minutes in space during STS-41-B (February 3-11, A.D. 1984 aboard Challenger). Tragically Dr. McNair perished along with the rest of the Challenger crew when the space shuttle exploded minutes after launch on January 28, A.D. 1986 for the STS-51-L mission.
Stephanie D. Wilson (b. A.D. 1966) who to date has amassed 12 days, 18 hours, and 36 minutes in space (STS-121 – July 4-17, A.D. 2006 aboard Discovery).
Based on the growing roll of African-American astronauts, which likely will include Joan Higginbotham (b. A.D. 1964) who is slated for launch this fall, the efforts of Dr. Beth A. Brown, a pioneering African-American astrophysicist, the creation of a “National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme” in South Africa consisting of a collaboration among the country’s “universities and research institutes [that focuses on] honors and masters students [to create a new generation of space scientists][35], and the A.D. 2005 debut of the 11-meter-wide South African Large Telescope (SALT) at Sutherland, “the Southern Hemisphere’s largest and most advanced telescope”[36] the black space experience can only grow richer as the future remains bright like the Earth’s shining star, the Sun.

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Posted by Omkarr singh on Tuesday, January 01, 2013. Filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0

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