The people featured on this page made history in a variety of ways:
... the first woman of her background to earn a pilot's license.
... serving heroically in war, protecting others.
... people who changed the definition of who was able to travel to space.
Their stories are united by one common feature—they made that history as members of historically excluded groups and communities. Members of these groups and communities didn't just face the common barriers encountered in aviation and space—barriers of engineering, physics, and more. They also faced barriers of prejudice, such as being denied training and resources. Overcoming these obstacles, they achieved their goals and made history.
This page is intended to be an introduction to a selection of history makers from some historically excluded groups. Our hope is that this page will excite you and encourage you to dig deeper into these stories and others.
The groups highlighted on this page were selected because they correspond to heritage months currently celebrated by the National Air and Space Museum. The groups appear in alphabetical order.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
Onizuka was born in Kealakekua, Kona, Hawaii, on June 24, 1946, to Japanese-American parents. Onizuka already served active duty with the Air Force from 1970 to 1978 when he was selected as a NASA astronaut. He flew as a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle in 1985. Tragically, he died in the Challenger launch accident in 1986 (STS 51-L mission) before reaching space a second time.
After Pearl Harbor, Ben Kuroki volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps. Kuroki somehow slipped through the filter that placed all Japanese American enlistees in segregated units and he became a gunner in a B-24 squadron based in Europe. He served with distinction and completed 30 combat missions, more than the standard full tour of 25. That's just the beginning of his story.
Sunita Williams, one of the less than 100 women who have flown in space and an astronaut of Indian American descent, has spent more than 321 days in space. During two extended missions to the International Space Station (ISS), she completed seven spacewalks totaling 50 hours and 40 minutes (as of August 2012). She was also the first person to run a marathon and triathlon in space.
Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license. In the 1920s, getting a pilot's license as a Black woman in the United States was impossible—no one would train her. Coleman moved to France to get her flying certification. After earning her pilot's license, Coleman drew crowds by performing stunts at aviation shows in the United States.
320th Balloon Barrage Battalion
The 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only unit comprised entirely of African American soldiers to storm the beach on D-Day, provided critical protection to the ships and soldiers below them from attacks by enemy aircraft through the use of barrage balloons.
For Dr. Mae Jemison, space was always an area of fascination. Space travel was her aspiration from an early age, and together with inspiration from astronaut predecessors Guy Bluford, Jr. and Sally Ride, Jemison not only achieved her goal of flying in space, but became the first African American woman to do so on September 12, 1992.
Pablo de León has been in the space business for nearly three decades, working as a space project manager and spacesuit designer.
He founded the Argentine Association of Space Technology. With the Association, he served as the payload manager for Project PADE (Paquete Argentino de Experimentos), a group of seven Argentine experiments that flew on STS-108. These were the first Latin American supported experiments conducted on the space shuttle.
He is currently an associate professor at the University of North Dakota (UND) in the Space Studies Department and director of the UND Space Suit Laboratory, where he and his team are worked on the North Dakota Experimental-1 (NDX-1) Mars prototype suit.
Astronaut Ellen Ochoa made history as the first Hispanic woman in space. Ochoa's groundbreaking career would send her on four separate space missions and eventually to the helm of NASA’s Johnson Space Center as its first Hispanic director.
Astronaut Danny Olivas grew up in Texas, studied engineering, became an astronaut, and flew on two space shuttle missions. During his 27 days total in space, Olivas spent almost 35 hours on five spacewalks working outside the International Space Station.
LGBTQ+ History Makers
Helen James was arrested and discharged from the US Air Force as part of the Lavender Scare, a campaign to remove LGBTQ+ people from government employment in the 1950s.
James enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1952. Receiving positive performance reviews, she was promoted from radio operator to crew chief, achieving the rank of Airman Second Class. While stationed at Roslyn Air Force Station in 1955, however, James came under scrutiny due to her sexual orientation.
When George Takei debuted as astroscientist-turned-helmsman Lieutenant Sulu on Star Trek, he made history as the first Asian American to play a major, non stereotyped character on an American television show.
Since then, George Takei has publicly come out as gay. In his work, he's embraced the Star Trek philosophy of diversity and social justice, advocating for LGBT rights and sharing his experience in the Japanese-American incarceration camps during World War II.
Frank Kameny was an astronomer working for the United States Army Map Service when he was fired as part of the Lavendar Scare, when the federal government barred lesbian and gay people from working for them. Kameny appealed his firing through the judicial system, taking his case as high as the Supreme Court. He also organized. Kameny founded the D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights organization, and helped lead picket lines outside the White House.
A member of the Chickasaw Nation, John Herrington is the first Native American to fly in space. In 2002, John Herrington launched on STS-113. He took with him a Chickasaw Nation flag, a traditional flute, and other items to honor his heritage.
Qualified to fly solo in 1930, Mary Riddle was the first enrolled woman in a Native American tribe to earn her pilot’s license, and later her commercial license. Riddle was best known for being a performing parachutist.
She was a part of the Clatsop and Quinault tribes, and learned how to fly in Portland. Riddle was inspired to become a pilot when she was 17 years old and happened to see a woman crash in an airplane. Public opinion, Riddle said, was that women would never be successful pilots—she knew then that she wanted to prove them wrong.
Joseph "Woody" Cochran
Raised in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Joseph Cochran of the Cherokee Nation went by the nickname "Woody." He joined the U.S. Army Air Forces and learned to fly the B-17. He was assigned to 43rd Bomb Group in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
During an air campaign in New Guinea, Cochran’s plane sustained serious damage from an attack. All crewmen but one were wounded, including Cochran, who was wounded in the neck. Cochran and the unwounded man were able to safely return the damaged plane back to base.
After recovering from his wound, Cochran returned to serve and was promoted to Captain. For his service, he earned the Silver Star, Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, three Presidential Unit Citations and an Air Medal.
People with Disabilities
Jessica Cox is the world’s first licensed armless aviator. She is also a proud Filipina American and part of a small group of women pilots; only about 6% of non-commercial pilots in the U.S. are women. Cox dreamed of becoming a pilot but finding an instructor was a challenge. However, she persevered and eventually found a teacher who agreed. Her dream became a reality in 2008 when she took her first solo flight. Today, Cox is an advocate for women in aviation and people with disabilities.
Alverna Williams, who had lost both legs as a child, fought to receive a waiver to get her student's pilot's license. When she succeeded, she became the first American pilot with disabilities to earn a pilot’s license. Williams went on to perform as a pilot in a show with her first husband, to join the Ninety-Nines, an organization to promote women pilots and to encourage other women to fly, and more.
Pilot Neal Loving's fascination with flight started when he was young. He studied aeronautics in high school. During World War II, he helped form the all-Black Civil Air Patrol (CAP) squadron 639-5 to train young people in military drills, flight theory and practice, and parachute training. Then Loving lost both his legs in a plane crash in 1944. After he recovered, he established a flight school, built homebuilt airplanes, and continued to fly.
As she became the first American woman in space in June 1983, Sally Ride’s presence on Challenger for the seventh space shuttle mission truly was a ride into history. Ride was one of the the six women accepted into the 1978 class of astronauts, the first women to be chosen by NASA to train as astronauts.
Ride returned to space on a second space shuttle mission. She spent over 343 hours in space.
After she retired from NASA, Sally Ride used her groundbreaking status to launch a variety of business ventures that would inspire the next generation of astronauts and scientists.
Janet Waterford Bragg was an African American pilot whose leadership in Black pilot organizations in the 1930s paved the way for other aviators.
In 1933, she enrolled in the Curtiss Wright Aeronautical School where she was the only woman in an aircraft mechanics class of 24 black men. Although her race and gender provided constant challenges, she continued to pursue her passion for flying.
As a mathematician who calculated the trajectories for some of NASA’s most important missions, Katherine Johnson's contribution to history cannot be overstated, though it was overlooked for decades.
Johnson excelled as a “human computer,” and the flights of the first Americans in space relied on her calculations. Even when NASA turned to electronic computers to tabulate trajectories, John Glenn now-famously asked that Johnson personally recheck the calculations on his flight before climbing aboard Friendship 7.
Johnson, and countless unsung heroes just like her, carried the nation’s space program forward, despite pervasive opposition at all levels of society.