TSTC associate professor of English Steven Moss co-wrote a new book on the first blacks to work with NASA and the space program in the 1960s.

While a nation turned its attention heavenward to see the work of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the 1960s, the agency’s black scientists, engineers, computer programmers, technicians and a would-be astronaut were making civil rights history on the ground simply by going to work and doing their jobs.

That’s the surprising story revealed in Richard Paul and Steven Moss’ new book, “We Could Not Fail,” which is winning national praise and international attention.

The book combines the personal experiences of 10 men with the story of how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations saw the federal agency and its considerable economic leverage as a way to chip away at racial segregation in the Deep South.

Moss, 52, a Texas State Technical College associate professor of English, first explored the subject for his master’s thesis at Texas Tech University, “NASA and Racial Equality in the South, 1961-1968.”

Though his advisers were

dubious that he would find much about the intersection of the space program and the civil rights movement, Moss found plenty.

President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson saw the ramping up of America’s space program and its thousands of new jobs as a tool to crack a racially segregrated South.

Millions of Americans followed the developments of the space race to put a man on the moon and the public protests of the civil rights movement without realizing the intersection of the two in the lives of the black scientists and engineers doing their jobs in often hostile conditions.

“I’m the guy who connected the dots. I got lucky and happened to be the person who did it first,” Moss said.

Six years ago, Moss met public radio documentary producer Richard Paul, who was recording the personal stories of several of those black NASA pioneers for his radio documentary “Race and the Space Race,” and the two decided to pool their research and interests in a book.

They shopped their idea around for more than a year until the University of Texas Press gave it a green light.

The two decided to organize their material around the personal stories of 10 black scientists and engineers, including:

Julius Montgomery — The first black technician to work at Cape Canaveral, located in a Florida county where the Ku Klux Klan was strong, and the first to integrate the Florida Institute of Technology, though only after agreeing not to enroll in the school’s fledgling years.

Theodis Ray — A descendant of the free black town Allenhurst, Florida, which was removed to build the Kennedy Space Center.

George Carruthers — Built the first extraterrestrial observatory installed on the moon.

Frank Crossley — A metallurgical engineer who received seven patents for alloys used in the aerospace industry and an advocate for fair employment practices.

Ed Dwight — A black test pilot included in the first round of astronaut training.

Delano Hyder and Richard Hall — Technicians who worked for NASA in Huntsville, Alabama, during a tumultuous time of desegration, with the federal agency pressuring state officials, including Gov. George Wallace, for racial integration.

As the book’s introduction notes, “That Jackie Robinson hit nearly .300 and led the National League in stolen bases his first year demonstrated to the nation that he belonged in the big leagues. In the same way, the first African-Americans in the space program had to be at their best at all times. With all that was riding on their presence there, they could not fail.”

The book also documents other unsung stories of how NASA and the space program provided leverage to bring civil rights for blacks to the segregated South of the 1960s, including how Houston civil rights activist Otis King’s threat to protest a Houston parade honoring astronaut Alan Shepard led city fathers to live up to their behind-the-scenes pledges to end segregation.

Since its publication in April, “We Could Not Fail” has won national attention and praise. The New York Times Book Review reviewed it for its April 24 Shortlist, while Library Journal reported it “vital and of interest to all Americans.”

The book even made it on Esquire magazine’s monthly reading list for May, “6 Books You Absolutely Can’t Miss This May.”

Moss and Paul have been interviewed by BBC International and National Public Radio, while Moss was one of the local authors interviewed when C-SPAN came to Waco in December.

Moss finds the praise and attention gratifying, but hopes the stories keep spreading.

“Richard and I would really love to see this get into school libraries,” he said. “As a writer, the small stories matter. These are all small stories, but they resonate with people.”

His and Paul’s book demonstrates how important and influential small acts of courage and determination proved in the larger sweep of the civil rights movement, he said.

“It’s the guys who went to work every day. They put people on the moon and changed the way we do things here,” he said. “They couldn’t fail. They didn’t fail.”

Recommended for you