The seven heroes of the Challenger disaster linger in our memories. We recall their bravery and eagerness to cross new frontiers. Courageous pioneers, these seven exceptional people touched all our lives.
"America and the world," said Eric McNair, brother of astronaut Ron McNair, "have come together in a feeling of unity in the week since the disaster."
With two women, a Japanese-American and a black among them, the Challenger astronauts represented America's best. As one of four black astronauts, Ron McNair represented the embodiment of a dream to fly that has been held by many black Americans since the early years of aviation.
Acquiring the training necessary to fly an airplane was difficult for blacks to attain, but it was not impossible.
As Von Hardesty and Dominick Pisano point out in their publication, "Black Wings": "For the first half-century of powered flight, blacks flew in largely segregated circumstances. Racial exclusion in aviation -- as in other areas of life -- mirrored the prevailing norms of American society."
Interestingly enough, the first black American to become a licensed pilot in the United States was a woman. Bessie Coleman, who was born in Texas and later resided in Chicago, went to France for training because of racial and sexual discrimination in this country.
Becoming the first licensed black pilot in the United States in 1922, she then became a barnstormer. Four years later, while rehearsing for an aircraft show, she died in an accident at the age of 33.
Even earlier, during World War I, as a pilot with the French, another black flier, Eugene Bullard earned his wings and received the appellation of the "Black Swallow of Death."
After World War I, blacks interested in aviation began to train a corps of skilled black pilots. They formed flying clubs to buy planes, train members, sponsor air shows and even make dramatic flights across America to promote aviation during the 1920s and 1930s.
The result was a marked increase in the number of black fliers in pre-World War II America, but really large numbers of blacks did not come into aviation until World War II.
After the NAACP sued the War Department, demanding that blacks be trained for flight, the U.S. Army Air Corps activated a segregated aviation training center at Tuskegee Institute that produced the 99th Fighter Squadron.
Later, the 332nd Fighter Group, made up of four black fighter units that included the 99th -- better known as the Tuskegee Airmen -- acquitted themselves well during World War II, flying more than 15,000 missions and destroying 26l enemy aircraft. They flew from North Africa to Italy and they never lost a bomber that they escorted over enemy territory.
"We demonstrated that black people could fly and operate fighter aircraft in combat, which brought respect for blacks in the military," retired Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., of Alexandria, recalled in an interview in 1983.
Following the issuance of Executive Order 9981 by President Truman, which ended racial segregation in the armed forces, the United States Air Force became the first military service to integrate, and the ranks of black fliers, technicians, mechanics and engineers grew.
During the 1960s, some of these same military-trained pilots entered the field of commercial aviation. And by the 1970s, following pressure from some of the civil rights organizations, blacks had become part of the space program.
In 1983, when Col. Guion S. Bluford Jr., an Air Force fighter pilot in Vietnam with 144 missions to his credit, became the first black astronaut to go into space, blacks hailed the honor as fulfilling a dream of broader progress.
Make no mistake about it, we will be going back into space. It's in the nature of human beings to explore. And, just as Bessie Colemen and Eugene Bullard started a new tradition for black aviators, the Challenger crew established a new tradition for multiethnic space crews.
As we attempt to find out what lies beyond the vastness, those crews will be Hispanic, Asian, white, black and female. Indeed, someday soon, perhaps they even will include another Bessie Coleman.