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.

In ‘A Wrinkle In Time,’ Oprah appears as the earthly deity she’s been for years Guru, self-help maven and fabulously kitted angel

It’s pretty amusing that a science fiction film based on a book published in 1962 is the one that delivered a role in which Oprah basically plays … herself.¹

How much was this a factor in drawing people to the cineplex? Unclear. A Wrinkle in Time took in $33.3 million at the box office this weekend. But the imagery itself, and the context behind it, is still worth examining.

The first time Oprah appears on screen in A Wrinkle in Time, it’s a breathtaking stunt. She materializes in the backyard of the Murry house as the shimmering, larger-than-life Mrs Which, rising to a height of 30 feet, with a crown of curly, platinum blond hair and fabulously bejeweled eyebrows. Her bottom half never quite fully materializes, giving her an ethereal quality. Mrs Which is the oldest and wisest of the Mrs W’s, which include Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), by a billion or so years.

But upon meeting her, it’s impossible not to think, “Someone finally found a way to visually render Oprah’s role in our culture!”

Throughout her career as an actress, Oprah has brought empathy and dignity to the black women whom society actively overlooks, from Ms. Sofia in The Color Purple to Deborah Lacks in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to Sethe in Beloved.

Mrs Which is a guardian seraph to Meg Murry (Storm Reid), the girl who must travel through space and time to find and rescue her lost father, a famous NASA physicist who’s been missing for four years. Mrs Which is patient and firm with Meg, who’s having trouble loving herself and having faith in her own abilities. Where Mrs Whatsit grows impatient with Meg’s typical teen-age sullenness and doubt, Mrs Which offers realism and gentle reassurance. She repeatedly urges Meg to “be a warrior.” IRL, Oprah may not have an army of warriors for peace, but she does have an Angel Network. The movie isn’t explicit in labeling the Mrs W’s as angels, although that happens in the book, which was heavily influenced by author Madeleine L’Engle’s many years in the Episcopal Church.

Oprah’s role as a quasi-religious figure in America is legendary. She was ahead of many Americans in publicly declaring herself as spiritual rather than an adherent of a specific religious dogma. In doing so, she broadened Americans’ tolerance for religious practice that doesn’t rely on organized religion, and she may even be something of a prophet herself.

“I know some people have called Billy Graham America’s pastor, but in many ways, in a more realistic sense, Oprah is America’s pastor,” said the Rev. Broderick Greer, an Episcopal theologian at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver.

In attempting to parse Oprah’s role as The Oprah Winfrey Show was drawing to a close, The New York Times’ Mark Oppenheimer once called her a “child of poverty” who became “the leader of a worldwide cult.”

Greer said he thinks of her as more of a “guru.” He noted that, like L’Engle, fundamentalist Christians have seen Oprah as a threat, and sometimes that threat was due to Oprah’s race and gender. She was used as a “bogeyman” in sermons, he said, and church leaders would caution their audiences against listening to her.

“I know some people have called Billy Graham America’s pastor, but in many ways, in a more realistic sense, Oprah is America’s pastor.”

“She was seen as being too powerful. She had too much influence,” Greer said.

“Throughout Christian history, women had been very specifically and methodically marginalized by the church. They’ve been called crazy,” he continued. “That has been the struggle of a hyper kind of masculinized, Western Christian church culture: ‘I just can’t believe that this kind of lesser being is saying something that’s profound and life-changing. I need to do everything within my power to make sure that the least amount of people possible hear her.’ ”

So it’s notable that Oprah created a flock of her own, espousing love, generosity and compassion through television without the fire and brimstone of Pat Robertson or Jim Bakker. Oprah exposed people to the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, Ed Bacon and Brené Brown. She’s helped remove the stigma associated with talk therapy.

“I do know how my mom and aunt and my deceased grandmother understood her, and it was a black woman with agency they could identify with,” Greer said. “Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, they watched Phil Donahue every day, and took his expertise and followed his taste. Sometime in the late ’80s, early ’90s, that shifted, and they were able to see someone who looked like them, who sounded like them, who came from a similar background, say, ‘I have agency. I’m the host. I’m not the sideshow or the sidekick. I am the host.’ ”

Those are good things, right? Well, yes. But with great power comes great responsibility, and when you consider Oprah’s grounding in journalism, maybe she let us down sometimes. Especially because as we’ve invested in her and her recommendations on our own roads to self-actualization, Oprah has led us down some dubious paths.

Remember The Secret?

The reason you don’t have the life you want is because you just haven’t visualized it hard enough!

Iyanla Vanzant?

Who needs to be licensed as a therapist when you can call yourself a “life coach” and do whatever you want?!

Dr. Phil?

He’s not even an MD, people!

OK, fine. Oprah’s track record as a spiritual leader is a mixed bag. But somehow, her ultimate message that it’s possible to transcend suffering, and even find beauty in that transcendence, that we’re all capable of doing good in the world and that spreading love and light is a worthwhile cause, has gotten through and made her a figure who inspires intense admiration.

And it’s because for decades, we sat in front of the television on weekday afternoons and took part in The Church of Oprah. She’s flawed, sure. But Mrs Which is a powerful visualization of the best Oprah has given us. I’m glad there’s an image that so fittingly captures her contributions with a swoosh of wind or a wrinkle of time.

The Milwaukee teacher behind this viral video says he’s inspired to put kids first Terrence Sims’ latest social media sensation, ‘Excellence First,’ is lit

When sixth-grade Milwaukee teacher Terrance Sims shot footage of his students spitting dope rhymes over Tee Grizzley’s “First Day Out,” he didn’t know the video would go viral. The song, titled “Excellence First,” is now a social media sensation and on his account alone has more than 81,000 views in less than one week.

“It started out by me just writing the verse, and when they came in for the first day of school, instead of saying good morning and greeting them, I just put the video on and then set the verse. They loved it,” Sims told The Undefeated.

Aryn Fears and Savana Patterson are stars in the full music video and students of Milwaukee Excellence School.

“At the end of one of my math classes we had some extra time, and it was their idea to go up one at a time and show how they could spit the rap,” Sims said. “When I heard the two ladies in the video spit it, I went, there’s no way you could not record this. That’s kind of how it got started.”

Sims first hit the scene earlier this year when students in a fourth-grade class at his former school participated in a photo shoot dressed as stars from the movie poster for Hidden Figures. Draped in clothing similar to those of Figures stars Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer, the students represented children of color and attributed honors to black women in history. Monae tweeted the photo, which went viral.

“That was at my old school and was actually part of my chosen project for that school where we had to look at a problem at school and try to solve it,” Sims explained.

When he searched to find posters to hang up around the halls and classrooms of the schools, his problem was that he could not find any representations of people of color.

From left to right: Miah Bell-Olson, Morgan Coleman and Ambrielle Baker-Rogers.

“My idea was to re-create positive posters with my kids in it and post them on the streets,” Sims said.

Upon completion of the photo shoot, he added a picture in his personal group chat and his friends did not believe the photo would get much attention.

“I went ahead and posted it and they went crazy,” he said. “We actually did like 30 different posters, but that one went like crazy on the internet. It was cool because it got them down to the NAACP awards to meet all the stars, and then we got to go down to Houston and toured the NASA facility. It turned out to be a really great day for the kids.”

Sims has been teaching for four years and has a degree in zoology from the University of Wisconsin. He earned his master’s degree in education from Alverno College in Milwaukee. The 28-year-old said his teaching career started on the day his father was diagnosed with cancer. His main goal is to inspire children to reach their goals, and he has dedicated himself to “putting school first.”

“It’s what he [Sims’ father] put first and he quietly passed away in February, and that’s why if you look on my Instagram you’ll see a lot of my lyrics are to honor his legacy. Everything I do is to honor my father passing away.”

Sims said his father was a pastor in Milwaukee and “really pushed kids to get high grades. I wanted to make sure that continues to happen.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson to Kyrie Irving: “I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA” Astrophysicist is pop culture’s ultimate superfan

Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to talk. Loves it. When you ask the New York native and director of the Hayden Planetarium a question, his voice lights up. Whether it’s about science or popular culture, Tyson is eager to educate, often offering more than you even asked for.

The fourth season of National Geographic’s StarTalk, his hit late-night talk show (née podcast) that features the likes of Bill Clinton and Terry Crews, premieres Oct. 15. “I care deeply about what role pop culture plays in hearts, minds and souls,” said DeGrasse. StarTalk mixes science with comedy with interesting conversation for a show both entertaining and educational — but most importantly, accessible. “I can start where you are, what you bring to the table, and I just add to that,” he said. “I think that’s part of the successful recipe of StarTalk.”

What’s a bad habit that you have?

I’m always aware of bad habits, so I’ve probably gotten rid of it already. I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, [fried] in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw? Is it a bad habit, or is it just a habit? The real question is, if anyone has a bad habit, why haven’t they done anything about it yet if they are self-aware it is bad? I used to twirl my hair when I was a kid, but then I stopped. I notice when other people are twirling their hair, it’s interesting. I empathize with them.

“Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body.”

Kyrie Irving once said that the world is flat, although he later admitted to (supposedly) trolling. What would you say to him about this?

We live in a free country, where you can think and feel what you want, provided it doesn’t violate someone else’s freedoms. I greatly value that. So to Kyrie Irving I would say, ‘I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA.’ It’s a reminder there are jobs for people who have no idea what science is or how and why it works. And in his case, basketball is serving him well. The problem comes about if you are not scientifically literate, hold nonscientific views and rise to power over legislation and laws that would then affect us all. That’s the recipe for social and cultural disaster.

What’s the last museum you visited? Do you find yourself going to museums often?

I very much enjoy museums. The last museum I went to that was not local in New York City … it was an art museum in Sydney, Australia. There was a whole section that had aboriginal art, not only of Australians but also some from the Maori tribes of New Zealand.

“I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, fried in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw?”

What is your favorite social media spot?

Lately, I have to say Twitter because of the value I derive from it. I have these random thoughts every day, and Twitter is a means by which I share these thoughts with the public. And in an instant, I get to see people’s reactions. Were they offended? Did they laugh? Did they misinterpret it? Did they overinterpret it? So I get a neurosynaptic snapshot of how people react to thoughts that I have. And this deeply informs public talks that I give. It’s my way to get inside people’s heads without violating their space.

People go to your Twitter feed to learn, so it’s nice to hear that you enjoy learning from your followers.

It’s not like I’m Professor Neil on Twitter. I tweet about a lot of really random things. People say, ‘Why don’t you give us the latest news?’ I’m not a news source. If I don’t think about that news today, you ain’t getting a tweet about it. I don’t start the day saying, ‘What am I going to tweet today? Let me think something up.’ No, it’s random. … You just happen to be eavesdropping in my brain. Before the end of the month I’ll be engaging in my Instagram account. I’ve yet to post to it. I deeply value photographic arts. It’ll mostly be artsy things, more artsy than purely educational. Then I write my own little caption about it.

So no pictures of your dinner?

If the dinner evokes some cosmic thought, yes, you’ll get a picture of my dinner. Otherwise, no.

If you could be any athlete, dead or alive, who would you be?

I think about Jesse Owens often. I think about Jackie Robinson often. Simply because of how great they were at what they did, how honed they were in their performance and the fact that their existence meant more than their performance. In other words, the whole was greater than the sum of their parts: great athlete, at an important time, doing an important thing, having an influence on people in a positive direction.

Have you ever been starstruck?

I was a little bit starstruck when I interviewed Jeremy Irons. There are movies he’s been in where I just — how can you be this good in that role? How is that even possible? And just to shake his hand and interview him for StarTalk, that meant a lot to me. And here’s one you won’t expect. I’ve never met him, but I’d be delighted to. I’ve got him on my short list: Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body. He’s beefier in the last two years than he was about 10 years ago, when he was actually wrestling. He beefed up extra for the Fast and the Furious series, so not in that state, but in an earlier state, of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. When I looked like that, no one was interviewing me in the newspapers. No one was asking to publish my books. So he’s a modern reminder of a lost chapter of my life.

When you were wrestling in high school, did you want to become a pro wrestler?

No. No, no, no. No! You want to talk about physics — physics in pro wrestling is what allows things to look like they hurt when they don’t. But it’s the laws of physics exploited to fool you, rather than exploited to win.

What sport do you most enjoy watching, from a purely physical standpoint?

I like many. And there is physics in all sports, so I don’t rank them in this way. In fact, StarTalk because of the success of our shows where we cover sports, we spun off an entire branch called Playing With Science. It’s all the ways science has touched sports. We talk about famous catches, famous hits. We do talk about concussions. We brought in a neuroscientist to talk about [concussions] from football. We talk about NASCAR and the technology involved with that. We talk about the physics of driving around a track. There’s a lot of fun physics in essentially everything, you know why? Because there’s physics in everything.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

These women are representing for black female magic They are on the rise and shining bright in new positions and/or new honors

It’s completely true. Numbers don’t lie, even if they can stretch the truth. The data floating around in recent studies show that leadership roles for black women in large companies are pathetically low. Since Ursula Burns’ departure from her post as CEO of Xerox in late 2016, no black women have stepped in to head any Fortune 500 companies.

According to The Huffington Post, consulting firm McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org, the nonprofit women’s leadership organization founded by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, revealed a study that shows that women of color (defined as black, Asian or Hispanic) “make up just 3 percent of executives in 132 North American companies surveyed … including JPMorgan Chase, Procter & Gamble, General Motors and Facebook.” Yet, these women make up 20 percent of the U.S. population.

But this is not going to be the place to pull out a “woe is me” card or bemoan the plight of women of color. Despite the numbers, there are some black women leading the way and continuing to soar in their careers.

Take a peek through the clouds as The Undefeated recognizes these amazing women for their achievements.


Zadie Smith

Novelist Zadie Smith

Brian Dowling/Getty Images

Zadie Smith will receive the Langston Hughes Medal from the City College of New York on Nov. 16 at the Langston Hughes Festival. The novelist, essayist and professor of creative writing at New York University is being honored for her body of work.

Rosalind Brewer

Rosalind Brewer

Paul Morigi/WireImage for Tommy Hilfiger

Starbucks has a new shining star. Rosalind Brewer is now the COO of Starbucks and remains on the company’s board of directors. Brewer is used to running things. She was formerly the president and CEO of Sam’s Club. “Starbucks is a culture-first company focused on performance and Roz is a world-class operator and executive who embodies the values of Starbucks,” Kevin Johnson, Starbucks’ president and CEO, said in a statement.

Police Chiefs of North Carolina

North Carolina is in the history books. For the first time in the state’s history, it has six black female police chiefs. Raleigh’s Cassandra Deck-Brown heads Raleigh, Durham has C.J. Davis, Morrisville has Patrice Andrews and Fayetteville has Gina Hawkins. Catrina Thompson is the chief of police in Winston-Salem, and Patricia Norris is the director and chief of police for Winston-Salem State University.

Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey

Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Natasha Trethewey, Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has been selected to receive the Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities. Teresa Heinz, the chair of the Heinz Family Foundation, described Trethewey’s writing as captivating, powerful and fearless. “We honor her not only for her body of work but for her contributions as a teacher and mentor dedicated to inspiring the next generation of writers,” Heinz said.

Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens

Jeff Hahne/Getty Images

North Carolina native Rhiannon Giddens is a triple threat in the world of music. She has a sultry voice that gives contemporary folk music a taste of the blues. Giddens is the lead singer, violinist and banjo player for Grammy-award winning band Carolina Chocolate Drops. The 39-year-old recently won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, becoming the first woman and African-American to win the prize of $50,000.

Simone Askew

Cadet Simone Askew.

Cadet Simone Askew of Fairfax, Virginia, has extended her black woman magic by becoming the first African-American woman to serve as first captain of the Corps of Cadets, the top position in the chain of command at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Katherine G. Johnson

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (second from left).

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Katherine G. Johnson’s name keeps shining. A new computational facility at the NASA Langley Research Center has been named after the “human computer” for her work at NASA Langley during the seminal U.S. spaceflights in the 1960s. Johnson now 99 years old, is a phenomenal mathematician and one of the leading characters to find the light of recognition in the movie Hidden Figures. “I liked what I was doing, I liked work,” said Johnson.

Krystal Clark

Krystal Clark

Krystal Clark has been named the first black president of the 96-year-old Junior League of Nashville. The 34-year-old is the director of the Office of Student Leadership Development at Vanderbilt University.

Daily Dose: 8/28/17 Texas tries to battle Hurricane Harvey

Hey, gang, I have good news and bad news. First, the bad news: The Morning Roast is coming to an end. Football season is upon us, and programming is changing, alas. Good news: There’s one more show left. Check out this week.

All prayers go to Texas. In a storm the likes of which no one alive has ever seen before, Hurricane Harvey has basically destroyed large parts of the state with both rain and wind and the subsequent flooding. And it’s not getting any better anytime soon. They say that recovering from this will take years, and don’t forget: Quite a few people who survived Hurricane Katrina back in the day had permanently relocated to Houston. This is a nightmare all over again for them. The police chief’s advice? Hunker down, they’re trying. This is such a sad situation, overall.

Might be time to get that Amazon Prime account, if you’d been holding out. The official sale of Whole Foods to the megaretailer became official on Monday, and word is that prices will be dropping at the high-end grocer rather soon as a result. This means that Jeff Bezos owns one of the country’s most prominent media companies, as well as a massive online sales operation, besides a monster food chain. Dude is doing a lot. How this will affect any of those businesses overall, who knows? Here are the details.

For the first time in a long time, I didn’t watch the MTV Video Music Awards. Typically, it’s my favorite of all the award shows. This year, I just didn’t have it in me as a result of the fight on Saturday draining all my desire to watch long, live programming for the rest of the weekend. But Katy Perry was the host, and from what my Twitter feed says, there were a decent number of solid performances. It’ll likely air 23 more times in the next five days, but if you just want to catch up on what you missed, you can do that too.

By many accounts, Vontaze Burfict is a dirty player. He’s had that reputation for a while in Cincinnati, and now the league is suspending him for five games as a result of a hit he put on a Chiefs player this preseason. Look, I don’t know what his deal is or why he can’t seem to stay out of trouble regarding his on-the-field play, but this dude needs to get it together. The NFL allows a lot of reasonable leeway when it comes to the basic concept of knocking the crap out of people, and the fact that he can’t seem to get it right is troubling. He plans to appeal the decision.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Russell Wilson seems like a nice guy. He and Ciara make a lovely couple, and generally he is a pretty decently liked person. But whatever he had in mind for his outfit at the Mayweather-McGregor fight is beyond me. I mean, look at this outfit. Dude looks like Carlton from that episode of Fresh Prince when they go to Compton, California.

Snack Time: In the 21st season of the WNBA, not a single player has a sneaker line of her own. Seems like that’s a problem that needs to change.

Dessert: Shoutout to Katherine Johnson — you know, the NASA genius — who just celebrated her 99th birthday.

These solar eclipse memes stole the day, by far What’s a once-in-a-lifetime event without a good response from social media?

Social media hilarity ensued once again on Monday when many onlookers around the world paused to experience a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Millions of Americans gathered in crowds, with co-workers, friends or family with protective glasses (or nah) to marvel at the first solar eclipse in nearly a century.

As usual, social media had no chill and spared nothing and no one. The funniest memes took over the invigorating moment, marking the moon trolling the sun in an unforgettable event. Even NASA Moon has a verified Twitter account.

Join in and smile at some of the most creative posts of the day.

Instagram Photo

Allen Iverson suspended one game for missing a game and other news of the week The Week That Was July 31-Aug. 4

Monday 07.31.17

New York Jets safety Jamal Adams, drafted to a team that went 5-11 last season, told an audience “if I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field.” Teammate Morris Claiborne, not to be outdone, said he too would “die out there on that football field.” Green Bay Packers tight end Martellus Bennett, on the other hand, “ain’t dying for this s—.” The Baltimore Ravens signed another quarterback who is not Colin Kaepernick. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, trying so hard to encourage star forward LeBron James stay with the team, was approved to build a jail complex in Detroit. President Donald Trump tweeted “No WH chaos.” Six hours later, recently hired White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who is not dead, lost his job. Multiple White House officials, or “the best people,” were tricked into responding to emails from a British prankster. Twelve inmates broke out of an Alabama prison using peanut butter. University of Central Florida kicker Donald De La Haye was ruled ineligible by the NCAA for making YouTube videos.

Tuesday 08.01.17

Guests at a New York City hotel won’t stop having sex up against their room windows; “Guys are together, girls and girls are together. They don’t even pull the shades down,” one resident said. A congressional staffer instructed a group of interns to not leak a meeting with White House adviser Jared Kushner; it was immediately leaked. Hall of Fame basketball player Michael Jordan said eccentric helicopter dad LaVar Ball couldn’t “beat me if I was one-legged.” Ball, keeping his name in the news, said Patriots All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski “can’t hang with me back in my heyday.” “Marijuana moms” is a cute new name for mothers who like to smoke weed; meanwhile, the government still wants to arrest certain people for marijuana use. NASA is hiring a person to protect Earth from aliens. Former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said Kaepernick, who hasn’t publicly spoken in months, should not talk openly about his social activism if he wants another job. Recently retired NBA player Kobe Bryant is getting thick. Two planes designated to be the new Air Force 1 were originally scheduled to be sold to a Russian airline. Scaramucci, the former White House communications director, known for hits like “I want to f—ing kill all the leakers,” invested almost half a million into an anti-bullying musical. Trump called the White House “a real dump.”

Wednesday 08.02.17

NBA Hall of Famer and BIG3 player-coach Allen Iverson, who has played in just half of his team’s games, averaging 9.1 minutes and two points per game, has been suspended one game by the league for missing a recent game. The Ravens are interested in another quarterback not named Kaepernick. Former second overall NBA draft pick Darko Milicic punched a horse in the face. The NFL released a video defining acceptable (simulating sleep) and unacceptable (twerking, pelvic thrusts) celebrations for the upcoming season. California Highway Patrol officers responded to reports of a kangaroo on an interstate highway; it was a raccoon. A 10-year-old boy named Frank, who admires Trump’s “business background,” offered to mow the lawn of the White House … for free.

Thursday 08.03.17

Trump told Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto “I won New Hampshire because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den”; Trump lost New Hampshire. Dukes of Hazzard actor Tom Wopat was arrested for allegedly peeling the sunburned skin off the arm of a woman and putting his finger between the butt cheeks of another woman; in response to the allegations, Wopat responded “F— them all.” A third person was arrested in Kentucky for allegedly digging up the grave of one of the suspect’s grandmother in search of valuables; “He should have known better because he was there in the funeral and he knew she didn’t have much to start with,” a relative said.

In “boy, he about to do it” news, special counsel Robert Mueller impaneled a grand jury for his investigation into Russian interference in the last year’s presidential election. A New Jersey man, possibly an eggplant emoji kind of guy, was kicked out of a showing of The Emoji Movie for pleasuring himself in the back row of the theater. A London pub, aptly named the Cock Tavern, banned the use of profanity; a patron responded to the restriction: “That’s bulls—.” The Secret Service, charged with protecting Trump and his family, was evicted from Trump Tower in Manhattan. Gov. Jim Justice (D-West Virginia) will switch to the Republican Party; the state party’s Twitter account said Justice “would be the worst thing to happen to WV” before last year’s election and called him “low-energy” and “Sad!” an hour before news broke of the party change.

Friday 08.04.17

Former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who unearthed the Monica Lewinsky affair while investigating former President Bill Clinton for something else, in response to the Russia investigation, said, “we don’t want investigators or prosecutors to go on a fishing expedition.” Former President Barack Obama was blamed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the “culture of leaking” currently ravaging the Trump administration. Los Angeles Clippers coach and president of basketball operations Doc Rivers, the architect of the Austin Rivers trade, was fired from and kept his job at the same time. Former welterweight champion Amir Khan, playing himself, accused his wife in a series of early morning tweets of cheating on him with heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua; Khan’s wife, Faryal Makhdoom Khan, responded by calling her husband a cheater, a 30-year-old baby, and accused him of sleeping with a prostitute in Dubai. Joshua responded to both set of tweets with a video snippet of Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” music video and a message that “I like my women BBW [Big Beautiful Women].”

Thank you, Lonnie Johnson, for one of summer’s best toys — the Super Soaker NASA engineer’s invention changed summertime

Summer’s hot sun beams down through broken clouds. Your favorite radio station serves as the day’s soundtrack. Your favorite uncle announces that the meat that had been marinating overnight in his secret mixture is now tenderized and ready for grilling.

Kids are already in the pool, and others are filling water balloons in preparation for the family water fight later in the day. Your older cousin arrives with the toy he’s been waiting six months to use: his brand new Super Soaker.

New memories are created every summer. But one that many Americans share is unpacking one of the most sought-after summertime toys that had been sitting in the garage since they received it as a Christmas gift.

The Super Soaker, created in 1982 by former NASA engineer Lonnie G. Johnson, remains the quintessential weapon in water wars across the country, selling more than 250 million units and earning over $1 billion in sales since hitting store shelves in 1990.

As is the case with most toys, we remember the joy they brought us without considering the person who made it possible.

Before entering the United States Air Force, before becoming a senior systems engineer with NASA and long before creating one of the All-Time 100 Greatest Toys, according to Time magazine, Lonnie Johnson was a young man from Mobile, Alabama, with a strong curiosity about science and technology.

“I’ve always liked to tinker with things,” Johnson explained in a piece for BBC News Magazine. “It started with my dad. He gave me my first lesson in electricity, explaining that it takes two wires for electric current to flow: one for the electrons to go in, the other for them to come out. And he showed me how to repair irons and lamps and things like that.”

By the time Johnson reached Williamson High School, an all-black high school in Mobile, he had built a 3 1/2-foot, remote-controlled robot named Linex. In 1968, Linex took first place in a science competition hosted by the Junior Engineering Technical Society at the University of Alabama.

Johnson was happy about the win but admitted to being perplexed by the university’s lack of interest in the young man behind the project. Although the Jim Crow era had ended a few years before, the mentality still remained.

“I have never really understood why in this country so many people look down on black people,” Johnson wrote. “I can’t say it weighed on me at the time, though. I was just so excited to have my robot, to know that it worked and that I would have a chance to show it off.”

Undeterred, Johnson continued his education on a scholarship at Tuskegee University, a historically black institution in Tuskegee, Alabama. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1973 and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering two years later.

Johnson went on to enter the U.S. Air Force. Later, he took a position as senior systems engineer in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working on the Galileo mission. During his free time at NASA, Johnson would tinker with the things around him — just like he did when he was a child.

“I was working on a new heat pump that used water instead of Freon because Freon is bad for the environment,” Johnson told Forbes. “I was experimenting with nozzles I’d made that shot a stream of water across the bathroom, and I thought they’d make a good water gun. I was having trouble getting people to understand the hard science inventions I had, like a heat pump or the digital measuring instrument. I thought the toy was something anyone could look at and appreciate.”

Johnson didn’t know at the time that this invention would become the “No. 1 selling toy in the world.” The first water gun sold so well, Johnson said, that there was a request to expand the product line. Two weeks later, the Super Soaker 100 was crafted. There have been 19 variations of the gun in its 27-year existence.

Today, Johnson is the president and founder of Johnson Research and Development Co., a technology development company that led the way in technological innovations in the toy industry.

So, next time you pull out a fancy Super Soaker to torture your siblings, be sure to thank Johnson for enhancing the way we celebrate summer.

Daily Dose: 6/9/17 NASA selects black woman as part of new astronaut class

I’m in Bristol, Connecticut, on Friday to appear on Outside The Lines, so if you’re around a television at 1 p.m. EST, tune in to give your boy a look-see talking about the best stories of the week. I will not be wearing a hat this time, I promise.

In the classic film White Men Can’t Jump, there is much trash talk. And in one particular scene, a guy decides that “your mama’s an astronaut” is a serious insult. It’s so off the wall and ridiculous that his opponent takes mega offense and loses it. But let’s be clear, being an astronaut is awesome. And for Jessica Watkins, her childhood dream of becoming one just came true. A researcher at the California Institute of Technology, she was one of 12 people picked by NASA for its newest class. This story is so excellent that it makes me want to cry.

If you don’t know who Gwen Bunn is, you will soon. She’s a producer, an artist and a songwriter who came to fame when she linked up with Top Dawg Entertainment’s ScHoolboy Q for the song “Collard Greens.” But she chose to stay independent instead of signing with a big label because she wants to maintain her flexibility as an artist. Here’s a cool story about how she got there. But, while you’re here, make absolutely sure you check out SZA’s new album CTRL, because it’s incredible.

When it comes to being progressive, the NBA is as good as any league in the U.S. And not just in terms of what its players are saying when the cameras are on, but also in regard to what happens behind the scenes to keep their league diverse. Now a few teams are working with Jopwell, which places minority candidates in positions with major firms. And they don’t just work with the NBA. They’ve got agreements with the U.S. Tennis Association, and in general they keep these pipelines open. Half of the startup team is a former Yale guard.

Last night in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, something foul happened. At one point, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators decided to renew their little rivalry in a game that was otherwise a blowout. Sid The Kid at one point was grinding Subban’s head into the ice as a way to tweak him. OK, whatever. But then NBC’s Mike Milbury gets on the camera saying that he deserved it, for God knows what reason. Oh, wait. Yeah, Milbury’s the reason that hockey will be forever stuck in the Stone Age.

Free Food

Coffee Break: It’s summertime now, so you’re going to be dealing with something that we all hate: bugs. Whether it’s keeping them off your body, out of your food or out of your house, they’re a problem. Some of us use the old magazine/newspaper method for the latter, but if you’re a humane person, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has something you can work with.

Snack Time: There are people actually paying money to walk around Brooklyn, New York, in tour groups as part of some “ghetto safari” experience, and these people are the worst. I’m so angry at just the concept, never mind execution.

Dessert: Sometimes, it’s rough with the fam. But we’re all gonna make it if we try. Happy weekend, kiddos.

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