SU students helped desegregate NASA, worked on Apollo 11
BATON ROUGE- Today marks 50 years since Apollo 11 when the first men landed on the moon.
It took years of work to reach the remarkable moment in space and it's thanks to the contributions of many people. In a Hidden Figures sort of way, some of those people were engineering students recruited from Southern University.
“NASA had an all-out effort to recruit black engineers for the space program,” Morgan Watson said.
Although he's an engineering professor now, he was just a student back in 1963 when NASA started looking for black engineers to help desegregate the space program.
“So we knew living in Alabama was no different from living in Louisiana or Mississippi or Georgia at that time,” Watson said.
The dozen black students were excited for the opportunity but they recognized it was the civil rights era in the 1960s. At that time Alabama was largely segregated, and NASA was no different.
“NASA was all-white no doubt about it. The only blacks we saw were the cooks and janitors in the buildings and of course the yard people Watson said.
But, that didn't deter the young men from successfully contributing to multiple parts of the Apollo 11 mission, including the design of fueling systems and more.
“I was excited about the challenge of the work because we knew how the space program had a rep of being a high tech industry,’ Watson said.
Morgan Watson wasn't alone, his classmate and colleague, W.T. Winfield, who now owns an engineering firm right on North Street, was right there with him on his journey to NASA.
Looking through old pictures, W.T Winfield remembers well how the man-made their mark on the space program contributing to the many working parts that were Apollo 11.
“It was very reassuring that I was in the right place contributing to the space shuttle. Everybody there became my friend,” Winfield said.
But, he knew that although his literal job was working on the space mission, his figurative one was breaking stereotypes among his white colleagues.
“That's the place where we were trying to set a pattern so that whoever came after us would be accepted and know that they could contribute as well,” Winfield said.
Today, 50 years since the moon landing and even more since their time at NASA, the men are proud of their contributions and even more proud of opening the door for others.
“To see the landing actually was very significant and gave me a feeling of gratitude and reassurance that the little we participated in was beneficial,” Winfield said.
“I think if we had failed, I think it would've been years before any black professionals from southern or anywhere else would've had another opportunity in the space program,” Watson said.
Morgan Watson recently visited Washington DC. to participate in filming a Smithsonian documentary about African-Americans who contributed to space flight. That is scheduled for release in February of next year.