Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dramatic Impact on the Sciences and Space Travel

By MICHAEL L. SAMPSON

Reflecting on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday Celebration, Black History Month, and beyond, we are invited to view Dr. King through a new lens, that of a man ahead of his time, as well as the incomparable freedom fighter we’ve come to know. He was the force responsible for inspiring a future generation of astronauts, engineers, physicists, and mathematicians; a new generation of space cowboys and cowgirls!

Reflecting on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday Celebration, Black History Month, and beyond, we are invited to view Dr. King through a new lens, that of a man ahead of his time, as well as the incomparable freedom fighter we’ve come to know. He was the force responsible for inspiring a future generation of astronauts, engineers, physicists, and mathematicians; a new generation of space cowboys and cowgirls!

There is an interesting story told about how actress Nichelle Nichols, famous for playing Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura, was influenced by Dr. King. Nichols had begun her career in show business singing with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands. She believed the Broadway stage was her true calling until an unforgettable encounter with King convinced the talented actress to remain on the popular sci-fi show.

Nichelle Nichols as “Lieutenant Uhura” in the original Star Trek television show. fuzzyundertones.com

After informing Gene Roddenberry of her intentions, she directed her steps towards Broadway. Roddenberry was the brilliant creator and producer of the Star Trek series. Before leaving, however, she had a historic moment during a chance conversation with the noted civil rights leader. During the 1960s, there were no other Black females on television in non-stereotypical roles. Lieutenant Uhura, as the communications officer for the Starship Enterprise, became a role-model for African Americans. In addition, her unique Star Trek portrayal was an inspiration for women and other minorities.

King, an avowed Trekkie himself, explained to Nichols that she could not give up her positive presence on the award-winning television show. He exclaimed, “You can’t, you’re a part of history!” To Dr. King, her presence was influential, inspiring a generation of young people to shoot for the stars.

Thanks in large measure to her trailblazing television role, Nichelle Nichols gave hope to many that careers in space exploration and the sciences were dreams that were achievable. She became a successful recruiter for both NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and the AMA (Analytical Mechanics Associates).

The first woman in space, astronaut Sally Ride, and the first African American woman in space, astronaut Mae Jemison, were both recruited by Nichols. She also recruited Charles Bolden, the current NASA administrator.

Other African American space pioneers include Dr. Guion “Guy” Bluford the first African American in space; Joan Higgenbotham, who has flown on the Space Shuttle Discovery for over 12 days in space; Dr. Ronald McNair, who was tragically killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and Stephanie Wilson, a flight engineer logging over 42 days in space where she operated her ship’s robotic arm.

Dr. King’s vision was a gentle nudge that continues to pay dividends for all of humanity. As we educate and utilize the skills and abilities of all, we confidently blast-off to a place “where no man has gone before.”

View the interview when Nichols recalls her conversation with Gene Roddenberry and the encounter with Dr. King.

Girl Power Includes Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math!

Most of us have heard the riddle about the doctor and his son:

A young boy and his father ended up in a car accident. Both were injured and rushed to the hospital. They were wheeled into separate operating rooms, as two different doctors were prepped to work on their respective patients. One doctor went to help the father, but the other doctor stared at the boy and exclaimed, “I can’t operate on him! This is my child!” How can that be?

The answer: The doctor is his mother.

The real question: Why is this considered a riddle? Is it because our initial thought is to assume that the doctor is a man?

This simple riddle points to a complicated problem regarding women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. According to the United States Department of Commerce women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, but they hold less than 25% of STEM jobs—even as more college educated women enter the workforce. Even with inspirational women in history like Jane Goodall, Marie Curie, and Sally Ride, women are still under-represented in science and technology.

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“Girls bring a different dynamic into the STEM field. Whether it is programming a robot to dance or curing the world of disease, females bring their own flair, enthusiasm, passion, and creativity to the field of STEM.” – Courtney Hromada, Assistant Coordinator of STEM Programming at the Boonshoft Museum

Some Need-to-Know Stats

  • Individuals in STEM fields are paid 26% higher wages than non-STEM workers and are less likely to experience joblessness.
  • Girls who are interested in STEM have significantly higher confidence in their academic abilities and higher academic goals.
  • Only 13% of girls say a STEM career would be their first choice.
  • 57% of girls believe they’d have to work harder than a man to be taken seriously in a STEM job
  • 82% of girls feel they’re smart enough to have careers in STEM fields.
DawnMelon

“My father has a PhD. in Engineering and my mom was an artist. I was exposed to both worlds at a young age, which inspired me. For me it was always science, I knew that is what I wanted to do. However, I think we need to be more supportive of girls who are interested in STEM. It can be applied to anything!” – Dawn Kirchner, Director of Education at the Boonshoft Museum.

Our goal? We aim to change that 82% to 100% by giving girls the tools and opportunities they need to have the confidence to tackle science, technology, engineering, and math without feeling intimidated. Not only does the Boonshoft Museum offer an array of educational STEM opportunities, from exhibitions and summer camps to special events, we are also encouraging girls to sign up for our girls-only FIRST LEGO League team. FIRST LEGO League is a great opportunity for girls to make new friends, compete, and problem solve in an encouraging environment.

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“Girls are so important in the STEM fields. For too long, women had difficulty advancing in their careers due to gender discrimination and stereotypes. As time progresses, I am thrilled to see an influx in female scientists- especially those who begin their paths at the Boonshoft Museum. Women have a unique perspective and experience in these typically male-dominated careers.” – Blaire Bartish, Manager of School and Public Programming.

If you’re child’s interests go beyond engineering, encourage them to visit some of these great resources to explore or spark a new STEM interest:

Girls Who Code
NASA Science4Girls and Their Families
NOAA Student Opportunities
Women@Energy
Women@Nasa
National Girls Collaborative Project
STEMBox

Parents: If you want to read more about the importance of women in STEM, visit www.whitehouse.gov for some of the leading statistics, resources, reports, and facts.