NASA, Marshall Space Flight Center embrace, push for diversity

Black History Month

North Alabama wouldn’t be what it is without NASA, and NASA wouldn’t be what it is without the work of black Americans.

Not just the ones in the suits, like Decatur’s own Mae Jemison who made history as the first black woman in space, but many who go to work everyday, right here in Huntsville.

“At Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), we find unique opportunities to support space exploration for NASA,” explained Larry Mack, the Deputy Director of the Office of Human Resources at MSFC.

Last summer, agency administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the addition of Inclusion as a fifth NASA value. The other four values are Teamwork, Excellence, Safety and Integrity. Black leaders at Marshall agree the addition of Inclusion speaks volumes about NASA’s philosophy.

“That means we’re not only committed to bringing on the best and the brightest diverse talent but we’re being intentional about making sure they are in that room, that their voices are being sought after when hard decisions are being made,” said Amanda Otieno, Special Emphasis Program Manager at MSFC. “That’s quite literally the only way that we’ll reach the moon and beyond.”

But even before Inclusion was on the wall, it was a goal.

“One of our ongoing outreach efforts is to partner with HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), MSIs (minority-serving institutions) to ensure their students have exposure and the opportunity to showcase what they can do.”

Just last February, MSFC hosted eight HBCUs that brought graduating seniors, granting them to opportunity to learn about the agency and apply for jobs.

“We know that we have to be leaders that are willing to go out and get the talent, but we also have to be willing to put the talent in the game,” said MSFC Diversity and Equal Opportunity Director Loucious Hires III.

The agency has offices and personnel who actively seek out diverse talent at MSIs.

“Some 57% of our interns attend MSIs,” said Southeast Regional STEM Engagement Office Director Kevin McGhaw. “I’m talking Winston-Salem State, Alabama A&M, Jackson State, Tuskegee University; these are schools that have interns participating in our intern program this spring.”

McGhaw is an HBCU graduate himself, and his office leads the internship program for MSFC and Stennis Space Center in south Mississippi, aiming to engage students in NASA missions with internships and student challenges like the Human Exploration Rover Challenge and the Moon Buggy Race.

“We have a lot of work to do, but we’ve seen real progress in this effort,” said McGhaw. “NASA has seen a 77% increase in student interns who attend minority serving institutions. Diverse teams perform the best. Our role in the STEM Engagement Office is to build a pipeline of young engineers and scientists and accountants and communicators. Our job is to make that pipeline as diverse as possible so in the future we have a diverse workforce we can pull on.”

MSFC’s outreach extends far beyond college campuses.

“I’ve been to elementary schools, middle schools, high schools,” said Mack. “Just talking about awareness, making sure everyone understands that in north Alabama, they’re building the world’s largest rocket.”

The outreach also aims to bridge the gap between the classroom and space for students of color, giving students the chance to hear about it from someone who looks like them. These pupils learn about NASA, about Marshall, about STEM, and opportunities that may be unfamiliar, or seem out of reach.

Mack, from southern Alabama, says growing up he never knew of the work taking place in his own state. Now, he says he partnered with his old elementary school to make sure the students there were educated about the work of the agency and the opportunities that exist there.

“If a young man from Selma, Alabama can come work at Marshall Space Flight Center and help support this huge mission, with the tools available to our young folks, if I can do it, you definitely can do it,” said Mack.

NASA also prioritizes inclusion as it pertains to the mental state of their employees.

Following a summer where racial justice was a universal conversation, even during a pandemic year, the agency launched Diversity Dialogues where personnel, from the top down, had multiple, crucial, sometimes uncomfortable conversations.

“NASA realized the importance of psychological safety can have on our workforce, a lot of our workforce was upset, rightfully so. So we had diversity dialogues spearheaded by the Office of Human Capital” said Hires. “They allowed us an opportunity, not only to heal, but to grow; to have conversations that we didn’t have in the past.”

Not unlike the mission to return to the moon, it’s all hands, of all shades, on deck to make the agency inclusive and equitable.

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