Another hidden figure: Clyde Foster brought color to NASA Over three decades, he recruited hundreds of African Americans into the space program

Clyde Foster came of age in Alabama in the 1950s, a place and time so oppressive for African Americans that a former Nazi rocket scientist stood out as a figure of racial moderation.

Foster’s father worked at a Birmingham iron foundry, where the dirtiest, most backbreaking jobs were reserved for African Americans. Every day he would come home dog-tired, prompting his son to vow that he would earn a living using his mind, not his back. By itself, that was an audacious plan for a black man living in Alabama.

But Foster did much more than just find himself a desk job. He became a pioneering figure in the U.S. space program. Over nearly 30 years working for NASA, beginning in the agency’s earliest days, his mathematical calculations helped propel rockets into space. His focused determination helped establish a computer science program at what is now Alabama A&M University, making the historically black institution the first public college in Alabama to offer the major. And his quiet and relentless advocacy brought hundreds of African Americans into space industry jobs in the Deep South, helping to shift perceptions of black people in ways both subtle and profound.

A page from a brochure for the Computer Science Center at Alabama A&M. Clyde Foster (on right) started the center.

Alabama A&M

Beyond all that, Foster also became a small-town political leader whose influence was felt throughout Alabama. He led the effort to restore the long-forgotten charter of Triana, a once-dying black enclave of fewer than 100 families outside Huntsville. Foster served as Triana’s mayor for two decades, and his work became a model for other tiny, mostly black towns in Alabama that took control of their political lives.

“There is no other African American NASA employee who did more to get jobs for black people, to get advancement for black people and to get young people working at NASA. No one did more than Clyde Foster,” said Richard Paul, co-author of We Could Not Fail, a book about the first African Americans who worked in the space program. “On top of that, you have his entire political career, which is also groundbreaking. The man’s accomplishments are absolutely heroic.”

Foster, who was 86 when he died in 2017, was no doubt a hero, but one who most people outside Alabama had never heard of. By all accounts, he never protested, picketed or sat in. Yet he improved many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black lives in a state where the law sanctioned blatant and often violent efforts to discount them.

“He just loved people. He wanted people to have a chance,” his widow, Dorothy Foster, 84, said in an interview. “He just wanted to help everybody. He was not the kind of activist you read about. He felt he could help blacks more by getting them employment than by getting out there and marching in the street.”

Foster was born in Birmingham in 1931, the sixth of 12 children. He went to the city’s public schools, which were segregated, as was every other public institution and accommodation in town.

“There were two sets of everything, one for the colored and one for the white,” Foster said in a 2008 interview with Paul for a radio documentary called Race and the Space Race. “Signs were posted on water fountains, restrooms.” Police harassment was a constant threat. “Whenever they would see a group of black kids assembled together, there was always some reason to go after them.”

A 1942 photograph of the Foster family: Back row, from left: Betty Foster (Berry), James Foster, James’s wife Elizabeth Foster, Clyde Foster, Dorothy Foster (Sweatt), Otis Foster, Ann Foster (Sweatt), Fred Foster. Front row, from left: David Foster, Katie Foster (Rodgers), Clyde’s father, James Foster, Clyde’s mother, Effie Foster, Geraldine Foster (Franklin), Eddie Foster.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster thought the best way to insulate himself from the many perils of being black in Alabama was through education. He had always been a good student, and he ended up going to Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he majored in chemistry and mathematics. At the time, he had his eye on a teaching career.

While still in college, Foster crossed paths with Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the V-2 rocket. Built with concentration camp slave labor, the V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, and the Nazis used it to rain death on the Allies during World War II. Von Braun later came to the United States with a group of about 125 German scientists, engineers and technicians who had been captured by American soldiers. Rather than prosecute them, U.S. authorities enlisted the German scientists to develop missiles, and later spacecraft, for America.

Much of that work, the backbone of the nation’s space program, was located in the Deep South, and it began at a time when harsh segregation reigned. NASA rockets were developed under von Braun in northern Alabama, tested in rural Mississippi, manufactured in Louisiana, launched from Cape Canaveral in central Florida and monitored from Houston.

With this new mission, von Braun was quickly transformed from a warrior for the supposed Aryan master race into an advocate for science education so he could build a skilled workforce to support the space program. Perhaps not fully understanding racial dynamics in his new home, he came to all-black Alabama A&M early on for help. Von Braun wrote a script about his plans for the space program in Alabama, including the then-fanciful dream of flying men to the moon, and he asked Foster and several of his classmates to read it during an assembly at an all-white high school. It was never clear why von Braun chose to have black A&M students deliver his message to white students, and Foster later told interviewers the assembly was a flop. But the unusual encounter introduced Foster to a wondrous new industry that would eventually change his life.

Foster graduated from A&M in 1954 and was drafted into the Army, where he spent two years. He and Dorothy had met and married while in college, and when Foster came back to Alabama after completing his military commitment, he got a job teaching high school science near Selma in the central part of the state. Dorothy had remained in her hometown of Triana, and she wanted him to move back. After a year, he did.

“I told Clyde that I was going to call the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and set up an appointment for a job interview, and ‘You’re going,’ ” Dorothy recalled with a laugh. “And he did.”

Foster is seen here in the Army. He landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957. The agency, headed by von Braun, was located at the Redstone Arsenal, a military installation in Huntsville that would later house NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Foster was hired as part of a large team of people who crunched the numbers generated by gauges inside missiles and rocket engines during test flights. Their analysis allowed engineers to calculate wind resistance, the thrust of a rocket and its proper trajectory. NASA was formed a year after Foster started, and in 1960 he went to work for the new space agency.

Foster saw a bright future for himself at NASA. Working for the federal government was about as good as it got for a black man in Alabama. The pay was decent, and racial discrimination was illegal on federal property. Also, with the Kennedy administration pressing NASA to integrate the thousands of new jobs created by the space race, von Braun emerged as an advocate for integration. The New York Times once called him “one of the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.” Von Braun himself said the space age would belong to “those who can shed the shackles of the past.”

Outside the gates of Marshall, however, Alabama was still Alabama.

George Wallace, who had lost the 1958 governor’s race in part because he was perceived as insufficiently harsh when it came to race, took office as governor in 1963. In his inaugural address, he famously vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The next year, Wallace tried to back up his words by standing in the doorway of an auditorium at the University of Alabama in what was ultimately a vain attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling.

Foster and the handful of other African Americans among the thousands of employees at Marshall were inevitably harmed by that racism. Employees looking to move up had to take training classes, but many of those classes were off-limits to blacks because they were held off base at hotels and other segregated public facilities. Foster once took a telemetry course in Atlanta, but he had to stay at what he called a “fly-by-night” hotel miles from the training center. Still, he told interviewers, he never missed a session.

A few years after he started at NASA, Foster was angered by a supervisor’s request to train a white co-worker to be his boss. He refused the request and then complained to higher-ranking NASA officials about the situation black workers faced. He demanded training programs that black workers could readily take advantage of. Soon a deal was struck: NASA would hold separate training sessions for black workers at Alabama A&M, often importing instructors from out of town. It was an odd compromise: segregated training classes when the country was moving to root out segregation. But it was the best Foster could do. More than 100 black employees eventually took advantage of the separate-but-equal NASA training, which would prove to be the foundation of Foster’s legacy at NASA.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama on November 21, 1931, Foster graduated from Parker High School in Birmingham in 1950 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Chemistry from Alabama A&M College in 1954.

NASA/MSFC

“I would say his most significant contribution to NASA directly would be the training program,” said Steven Moss, the other co-author of We Could Not Fail. “He made it so black workers did not have to jump through all the hoops that others before them did. Then, later, he helped so many people get jobs. As I talked to people at other NASA facilities in the Deep South, you can kind of see the family tree. They would trace who they work for, or who helped them, and it always came back to Clyde Foster.”

Even though Foster did not work in personnel, NASA would tap him to travel to colleges around the country to recruit African Americans trained in science or engineering to come work at Marshall. It was not easy for NASA to attract skilled white employees to Alabama, given the state’s horrible reputation for racial violence. It was even harder for Foster to attract black workers.

“I would tell [recruits] Huntsville was really not as bad … as the image George Wallace was given,” Foster said in a 1990 interview for a NASA oral history. “I told them, ‘Now, if you really wanted the challenge, good discipline, the space program has it for you.’ ”

The black scientists, engineers and technicians who did join NASA found Foster to be a willing mentor, no matter whether he had recruited them.

James Jennings was a math major at A&M when he met Foster, who was a regular presence at his alma mater in the mid-1960s. At the time, Jennings was about 20, and he looked up to Foster, who was in his mid-30s. Jennings took some computer classes that ignited his interest in working in the space program, which in those days represented the pinnacle of technological innovation. Jennings began as a co-op student at NASA and ended up spending almost four decades at the agency. He said Foster was a mentor nearly every step of the way.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

Photo by Don Rutledge courtesy of Lucy Rutledge.

“When I went to NASA, that was my first introduction into a predominantly white organization,” Jennings recalled in an interview. “I was kind of excited and apprehensive at the same time. I really didn’t know how our education would hold up, but it did not take me very long to understand that my education was on par or better than many of the white students who worked there.”

One thing that helped, he said, was Foster’s constant support. “He took me under his wing. He used to call everybody ‘Horse.’ He told me, ‘Horse, if you keep your nose clean and do your job, you could go far in this organization.’ ”

Jennings proved Foster correct, as he ended up working at NASA’s Washington headquarters in the government’s highest civil service rank before his retirement in 2005.

“Clyde always was encouraging and looked to give me opportunities for visibility,” Jennings said. “If your work is not visible to others, it is easy for your supervisor not to promote you. Clyde knew that, and he was always encouraging us to volunteer for committees and special projects.”

In an effort to create a pipeline of black workers into NASA, Foster persuaded von Braun to allow him to set up a computer science program at A&M. NASA provided grants to help get the program going, although at first Foster struggled to persuade A&M officials that it was worthwhile.

Founded in the wake of the Civil War, A&M had always focused on training students for jobs that black people could get in Jim Crow Alabama: teaching, nursing, farming and certain kinds of engineering. When Foster talked about building a computer science program to train students to send rockets to the moon, the skepticism was palpable.

“Black administrators were not interested, and they did not pursue this money because the program was there for them to develop other kinds of programs,” Foster said in the 2008 interview. “The most that we had was electronic, or electrical and mechanical engineering. [We had] civil engineering — we had to build some damn roads — but we [were] talking about building a pathway to space.”

Eventually, Foster won over the A&M officials. NASA paid Foster’s salary for two years while he worked to establish the program, which went online in 1969.

The cover of a brochure for the Computer Science Center at was then called Alabama A&M College. Foster started the bachelor’s degree program in computer science.

Alabama A&M

“Everything he did, I think he realized he was making a difference,” Jennings said of Foster. “But he was not the kind of person looking to take credit for it.”

In the late 1970s, Foster took a job in NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, which got him away from the technical heart of the agency but gave him more leverage to help black people get a leg up.

“I thought I could make an even greater contribution to increase the workforce to a more integrated workforce,” Foster said in the 1990 interview. Foster was director of Marshall’s EEO office when he retired from NASA in 1987.

His advocacy did not stop at work. Foster served on Alabama’s Commission on Higher Education, to which he was first appointed by Wallace in 1974. That was besides his groundbreaking work as the mayor of Triana. His work to re-establish the town’s charter cleared the way for Triana to receive federal grants for a series of major upgrades, including building the town’s first water system, installing its first streetlights, paving its gravel streets and renovating the town hall, which previously had been a coal-heated shack.

Following Foster’s example, about a dozen African American towns were able to reincorporate and, in some cases, make similarly dramatic improvements. The new political control also allowed a generation of black mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs and other local officials to gain experience in office.

Decades later, Foster led the legal fight against a chemical company that had poisoned the town’s waterways with DDT, resulting in a $24 million settlement for Triana residents.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

“If I hadn’t had these experiences early in life to cross over into these areas: political, education, business,” he said. “All of that was done because of the experience I had with NASA.”

This article is being published in collaboration with American Experience/WGBH as part of its series “Chasing the Moon,” which examines the scientific, political and personal dramas behind the space race on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. PBS will broadcast a film across three nights starting at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on July 8. Short digital films, articles, timelines and comics, including pieces on the first African American to be trained as an astronaut, the desegregation of Huntsville, and the Poor People’s Campaign protest at the Kennedy Space Center, can be found here.

John Urschel recounts his journey from the NFL to MIT The former Raven talks about his new memoir, ‘Mind and Matter,’ driving a Versa and why there are so few blacks in higher mathematics

As a young boy, John Urschel would amuse himself for hours solving puzzles and breezing through math workbooks. By the time he was 13, he had audited a college-level calculus class.

He was also no slouch on the football field. A two-star prospect out of high school in western New York state, Urschel was a low-priority recruit to Penn State. He worked his way into the starting lineup and later became a two-time All-Big Ten offensive lineman. He won the Sullivan Award, given to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the country, as well as the Campbell Trophy, recognizing college football’s top scholar-athlete.

Urschel completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics while at Penn State. He even taught a couple of math classes while playing for the Nittany Lions. After college, he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft and signed a four-year, $2.4 million contract with the Baltimore Ravens.

Urschel loves football — the fury, the camaraderie, the adrenaline rush — and he enjoyed knowing that he was playing at the highest level. But he loves math, too, and he wanted to pursue that passion as far as his ability would take him.

Urschel got a taste of how difficult it could be to do both when he suffered a concussion during his second NFL training camp. The brain injury kept him off the field for a couple of weeks. It took longer than that for him to regain the ability to do math again. Still, the following spring he passed the qualifying exam that allowed him to enroll in a full-time doctorate program in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Penguin Press

It was a great achievement, but it also meant he had two demanding jobs. By his third year in the league, he was spending more time taking stock of his life. What did his future hold? How long would his body hold up to the brutality of football? How good a mathematician could he be if he devoted himself to it full time?

He was fine financially. He earned $1.6 million over his first three years in the league while driving a Nissan Versa and living with a roommate. His big expenses were math books and coffee. He estimates that he lived on less than $25,000 a year.

In the end, he retired from the NFL at age 26 to pursue becoming a mathematician. Urschel, now 27, has about one year left before he earns his doctorate at MIT. After that, he has his sights set on a career in academia.

Urschel chronicled his uncommon journey in a new memoir, Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football, co-written with his wife, Louisa Thomas. The Undefeated recently talked to the former lineman about his new book, his view of college sports, the safety of football and his twin careers.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why did you write this book?

I really wanted to write something that conveyed mathematics in a very beautiful light. The publisher kept pushing me to put more of myself in it. At the end of the day, the final product is a memoir that also describes my relationship with both mathematics and football.

What do you hope people take away from it?

I hope they take away a number of things, not least of which is that it’s OK to have multiple interests, it’s OK to have multiple passions, that you don’t just have to be one thing. Also, I hope people take away a newfound appreciation of mathematics that might feel a little different than sort of what they experienced in school.

Who do you see as your primary audience for the book?

First of all, I would really like to reach middle school to high school kids who may be athletes but might have some interest in academics and STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] in some sense. Second, I would say anyone who simply enjoys football and math, because there’s a lot of both in this book.

Did you ever feel pigeonholed coming up?

Yes, I think I was, but I really didn’t pay too much attention to it. These things might bother some people, but I just usually viewed these things as an opportunity to change people’s mindsets.

Do you think there was some skepticism because you’re a football player, that this guy can’t be so good at math?

There initially was some skepticism, which I think was healthy. I completely understand why there was skepticism, and I think it was a reasonable thing.

Do you consider yourself a genius?

No.

What is a genius anyway?

I don’t know, and that’s why I don’t really consider myself one. Listen, I’m someone who is very good at math. I’ve been very good at math ever since I was little. A lot of hard work has gone into me being at the place where I am in mathematics today. With respect to football, I was a decent athlete. I don’t consider myself an extremely good athlete. I considered myself extremely hardworking.

Were you ever discouraged from pursuing high-level academics while playing football at Penn State?

I didn’t get any pushback from my teammates. I did get some pushback from Penn State football early on. But I do want to clarify the sense in which I got pushback, because I think I got pushback in a very good way. It wasn’t like they were saying, ‘Oh, John, this is going to take up way too much of your time.’ It was more of them saying, ‘John, let’s not take such a hard track so early on. Let’s move slow and steady, because college courses are a lot tougher than high school classes, and you think you are good at math from high school, but college is different.’ After my first fall semester, the academic advisers really picked up on the fact that, yeah, they don’t need to worry about me.

“There are brilliant, brilliant young minds being born into this country, but either they’re being born the ‘wrong’ gender or the ‘wrong’ color or into a household that doesn’t have the same opportunities as some other household.”

Do you think college athletes should be paid?

Of course they should be paid. That’s not an unbiased opinion. I’m extremely biased. Something is fundamentally wrong with the system. That’s obvious. But what’s the answer? I don’t know. Should all sorts of football players be paid? Certainly not. I don’t think the football players at, let’s say, the University of Buffalo are being exploited. Sorry. Does this football program make money? But we look at the Alabamas of the world and, well, clearly these football players are really contributing a lot and they’re the source of a great deal of revenue. How can we give them more? Because I do think they deserve more, but the right way to do it is sort of uncertain to me.

What do mathematicians do?

What a mathematician does is he uses the tools of mathematics to try to solve very complicated and important problems in this world. In some areas of mathematics, mathematicians try to solve fundamental ideas in physics. In some areas of mathematics, mathematicians are trying to understand and perfect those things in machine learning, which have great practical importance on our world. You have mathematicians who are working on Wall Street. The only thing they’re making is money, but they’re making quite a lot of it. Mathematicians work for Google. They work for Amazon. They’re the people who help come up with the technology and the algorithms in your iPhone.

How did the fear of concussions and the prospect of CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] factor into your decision to retire from the NFL?

Very nominally. It is something you have to take into account, but the risks were something I had been aware of for a large part of my football career. But I also wanted to create more time for mathematics. I wanted to spend more time raising my daughter and I wanted to be in good overall physical health. You know, I want to be able to walk around when I am 60.

Did you really live on $25,000 a year while playing pro football?

Yeah, maybe even a little less than that.

You’re kidding me. How is that possible?

I’m still a very frugal person, and frugal might not even be the right word. Even people around me will tell you, it’s not like I’m attempting to save money. I don’t do things like budget. I do the things I enjoy and I buy things that bring me joy. The things that bring me joy are typically like math books, maybe coffee at a coffee shop. Yeah, I guess luckily for me, both of those things are incredibly cheap.

Baltimore Ravens offensive guard John Urschel blocks during a game against the New York Jets at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, in October 2016.

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

So, no bling for you. No big Land Rover.

No, no. My car was a used Nissan Versa I bought in college. I kept it my whole career, although I’m not that sad to say I did let the Versa go because, well, I’m in Boston now. What do I need a car for?

In what ways do you miss football?

One of things I do miss about football is being on a team, being close with a bunch of guys, going through the whole deal of pursuing a common goal.

How do you replace the rush that you derive from football?

Yeah, that’s just something you can’t replace. You’re just not going to get that feeling from mathematics. As much as I love math — and there’s many amazing, beautiful things about math — you’re not getting that from mathematics. You’re getting a very different feeling, but it’s also quite amazing: this feeling of fighting against the unknown, this feeling of sort of trying to sort of go where no man has gone before, this idea of trying to solve problems that no one has solved before.

Why are there so few African Americans in math?

You look at, let’s say, all of the elite mathematicians at MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Cal Tech, Princeton, and maybe there’s like one or two African Americans. It’s not because these places have decided we just don’t like hiring African American mathematicians. The fact is that there’s just not many of us. And the sort of root of this, I believe, is not anything that happens in Ph.D. programs. The large part of the damage is done before a student even steps foot on a college campus. The large majority of American mathematicians in the United States, they are Caucasian, they are male and they generally come from pretty good backgrounds. And, I mean, it’s a sobering realization that there are brilliant, brilliant young minds being born into this country, but either they’re being born the ‘wrong’ gender or the ‘wrong’ color or being born into a household that doesn’t have the same opportunities as some other household. And these brilliant minds are being lost. I do believe a large contributing factor is sort of educational inequality.

One final thing: Would you allow a child of yours to play football?

I would, in high school. But not before then. There’s a big focus on college football players, NFL players and health in a number of ways. But the thing that people don’t talk about enough is young kids playing tackle football, contact football, before their bodies and brains are even developed. And that’s something that me, personally, I’m not a fan of. But in high school? Certainly. I think football is not for everyone, certainly not, but if it’s something that you think you’re interested in, I think it’s an amazing sport.