Artist Hubert Jackson’s painting NASA Heroes and Sheroes, 2019, is an important homage to the contributions made by Black women and men in the space program. Using an artistic technique dating back to the Renaissance era known as a “triangle” perspective, Jackson establishes a layered hierarchy to convey this history. The triangle composition also conjures a rocket blast-off, with bright red and orange colors in the lower half of the painting resembling rocket combustion “flames” leading up to the blue heavens. Reading the painting from bottom to top strategically conveys the earthbound support required to put astronauts in space and the sacrifices made along the way.
Beginning with the lower left side of the composition, a dominant figure represents Peter L. Robinson, the director of the graphics and management presentation division at NASA Headquarters. The graphic artist is depicted in earth-tone apparel of a green blazer with brown trousers, perhaps a color choice by Jackson to emphasize the important work performed at the ground level. Robinson was instrumental in conveying the goals of the Apollo program through graphic illustrations.
In Adoria Doucette’s article for Washington Life magazine, the subtitle says it all, “Peter L. Robinson played a dynamic role in what is widely considered mankind’s greatest scientific accomplishment, placing man on the moon.” Robinson worked before computerized illustration programs, and Doucette notes that without Robinson’s hand-drawn graphics, “NASA would not have blossomed as it did.” Hubert Jackson paints the hand of the graphic artist Robinson merged with his illustrations and by doing so, the figure becomes encapsulated in the art itself. An outstretched finger tactically points to three figures on the right managing a board with numbers. This grouping of three represents the Black women at NASA who were mostly unknown to the general public until the 2016 release of the movie Hidden Figures.
Based on author Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, the movie tells the history of the brilliant science-minded Black women critical to the success of the early space program. Despite the movie’s focus on Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughn (represented in the painting in no certain order), many other Black women also served in the capacity of mathematicians.
Dorothy Vaughan became the first Black woman to hold a supervisory position at NASA with her leadership of the West Area Computing unit and helped the organization’s transition to computer programming. Mary Jackson was the first Black engineer at NASA and is the namesake for the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building in Washington, D.C. Mathematician Katherine Johnson made calculations for early human spaceflights including Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in 1961 and John Glenn’s three orbits of Earth in 1962. In the painting, the women’s clothing is depicted with underlying patterns and iridescent colors—qualities reminiscent of the changing colors of a chameleon. With hands as part of the number board, Hubert Jackson visually transforms mathematicians into “human computers” — as they are frequently referred to. These visible women and mathematical figures are a significant grounding feature of the triangle composition. Together they represent the critical Earth-based calculations of orbital spacecraft trajectories to send humans into space.
Following the triangular form upwards, we see a group of three astronauts dressed in white space suits with helmets in their hands. The middle figure represents Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black woman in space aboard the space shuttle Endeavour (STS-47) in September 1992. Jemison came to NASA with a medical background and worked as a practitioner in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and in the United States. As a mission specialist, Jemison orbited earth for eight days and carried out experiments. Before her flight, I had the opportunity to speak with the rookie astronaut at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. In this interview, she talked about her inspirations and the influence of science fiction through the books of Octavia Butler and the television series Star Trek: “I watched Star Trek when I was a little girl growing up before Trekkies were popular. I was very much a Star Trek fan.” And as a young adult, she visualized becoming an astronaut in college and recalled, “I saw myself going into space one way or another.” She listed items she would bring into space and a favorite was an ivory statuette from a West African Bundu women’s society. In the painting, Mae Jemison is flanked by figures representing astronauts who forged the path of the first Black Americans in space and executive administrative roles at NASA.
Selected into the astronaut program in 1978, Dr. Guion Stewart Bluford Jr. became the first Black American to fly in space in 1983 as a mission specialist aboard Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-8). Bluford was a crew member on three more flights (STS-61-A, STS-39, and STS-53) between his first flight and 1992. Following in his wake were Col. Frederick D. Gregory and Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, both pilots for the U.S. military before entering the space program
A helicopter and fighter pilot with the United States Air Force, Col. Frederick D. Gregory came to NASA as a retired Colonel and veteran of 550 combat missions in the Vietnam War. In 1985, Gregory served as the first Black pilot for the Challenger (STS-51B) mission and served as the first Black commander aboard both Discovery (STS-33) in 1989 and Atlantis (STS-44) in 1991. Gregory also held positions at NASA as the first Black Deputy Administrator from 2002–2005 and Acting NASA Administrator in 2005.
Naval aviator Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden also came to the space program with experience as a military pilot with 100 combat missions in the Vietnam War. As an astronaut, Bolden flew as a pilot onboard Columbia (STS-61C) in 1986 and Discovery (STS-31) in 1990, and as a commander aboard Atlantis (STS-45) in 1992,and again, on Discovery (STS-60) in 1994. From 1997 to 2003, Bolden returned to active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps, but rejoined NASA to serve as the first Black NASA Administrator from 2009 to 2017 under the administration of President Barack Obama. The astronauts in this painted grouping proved that the contributions of Black Americans in space are limitless.
Above the “firsts” are unnamed astronauts in gold spacesuits and could represent the past, present and future Black astronauts of the space program including Dr. Yvonne Darlene Cagle, Capt. Robert L. Curbeam Jr., Col. Benjamin Alvin Drew Jr., Jeanette J. Epps, Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr., Joan E. Higginbotham, Leland D. Melvin, Dr. Robert L. Satcher Jr., Capt. Winston E. Scott, Stephanie D. Wilson, and Jessica Watkins, to name a few. But the efforts of the firsts did not come without great sacrifice, both through civil rights efforts for equal opportunities and the trials and errors of the space program. Surrounding the space travelers, and keeping within the hierarchical structure of the triangular composition, are the heavens. Hubert Jackson’s translucent winged astronauts as angels represent the loss of Black astronauts in the space program. An angel on the left, with a tell-tale feature of a mustache, could be Dr. Ronald McNair, a mission specialist who logged 191 hours in space onboard his first flight aboard Challenger (STS-41B) in 1984. McNair’s second flight onboard Challenger (STS-51) on January 28, 1986, ended his life with the break-up of the vehicle during its launch. The tragedy was the result of the failure of solid rocket booster O-rings, and McNair died alongside his other six crew members.
A lesser-known Black astronaut who perished before reaching space is Maj. Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr., a U.S. Air Force pilot selected in 1967 for the Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) run by the Air Force. Lawrence could have been the first Black astronaut in space if it weren’t for a tragic accident. In December 1967, Lawrence flew as a flight instructor in the backseat of a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and was killed when the flight test trainee crashed the aircraft.
The second angel could also represent Lt. Col. Michael Anderson, who logged 211 hours in space onboard Endeavour (STS-89) in 1998 and again on Columbia (STS-107) in early 2003. Disaster struck on return and ended with the catastrophic break-up of the shuttle caused by the heat of re-entry and a damaged spacecraft wing. During liftoff, a large piece of foam from the shuttle’s external tank breeched the wing of the spacecraft and caused ill-fated damage. A total of seven crew members perished in the tragic accident. Before Anderson’s Columbia flight, he told his minister, “If this thing doesn't come out right, don’t worry about me, I’m just going on higher.” In art history, triangle compositions refer to a spiritual hierarchy and the artist Hubert Jackson employs the same approach in this painting.
Jackson explains the spiritual nature of his work in his artist statement, saying “the period of American history from its inception throughout the Civil War and in particular the spirits of those who have come and gone but remain anonymous and unaccounted for through war, slavery, poverty or the passage of time… although they are no longer physically present, their spirits remain with us as they have become one with nature – embodied within the life forms that emerge from the earth…” Jackson pays tribute to the astronauts lost in the tragic accidents at NASA by including them at the top of the painting as spiritual forms. The angels appear to continue their work “behind the scenes” in the painting and perhaps in real life with extended arms, gently guiding and embracing the overall grouping of past, present, and future Black women and men while acknowledging their important accomplishments and contributions to space travel.
Artist Hubert Jackson NASA Heroes and Sheroes, 2019 was recently acquired for the Museum’s art collection, made possible through a generous donor. Hubert Jackson earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Virginia State University in 1965 and Master of Fine Arts in painting at Howard University in 1971. Jackson taught art in the D.C. Public School system for over 30 years and retired in 1999 to create art full-time at his studio in Colonial Beach, Virginia. His work is represented by the Zenith Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art located in Washington, D.C., and in the collection of the U.S. Art of the Embassies program. See more of Hubert Jackson’s art on his personal website.