In 1972, President Nixon gave his blessing to ramp up Apollo's successor, the Space Transportation System (STS). Two years later, work began on the first space shuttle, a test vehicle that NASA planned to christen Constitution.
Those plans changed after 100,000 Star Trek fans petitioned the White House. They suggested a more apt moniker: Enterprise, after the television starship that explored new life and civilizations.
And when the spacecraft rolled out on Sept. 17, 1976, the world caught a glimpse of a real-life starship Enterprise. And NASA would embrace all that the name symbolized.
See, three years before Neil Armstrong took his small and giant step, the NBC series dared giant social leaps. In contrast to NASA's WASPy lineup, the U.S.S. Enterprise crew resembled a intergalactic Rainbow Coalition. White men boldly went where no man had gone before — with blacks (Lt. Uhuru), an Asian (Lt. Sulu) and women at their sides.
There were compromises that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wouldn't make to get the show on the air: "I refuse[d] to have an all lily-white, Anglo-Saxon crew," he told Penthouse in 1976. "If there was one theme in all of 'Star Trek,' it was that the glory of our universe is in its infinite combinations of diversity. That all beauty comes out its diversity."
As the shuttle program winds down with Friday's launch of STS-135, with Sandra Magnus among the crew, it's indisputable that NASA embraced that beauty with the shuttle program going as far back as the Carter administration.
White astronauts had explored space through NASA's Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. But a blurb in the July 26, 1976, edition of Jet, the venerable weekly magazine for blacks, signaled that NASA had begun to realize that minorities also had the right stuff:
"How would you like to be an astronaut? ….. Well, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration needs blacks and women" for its space shuttle program.
The 1978 astronaut class included two black men, a man of Asian descent, and six women.
Among them, aerospace engineer Col. Guion S. Bluford Jr. Aboard Challenger in 1983, Bluford followed Lt. Uhuru into the cosmos — the first real-life African-American astronaut in space.
He was the first of many.
In 1992, Mae Jemison, a doctor and chemical engineer, rode Endeavor into the history books as the first African-American woman in space. Col. Frederick Gregory was the first African-American to pilot and later command a shuttle. Charles Bolden, flew aboard the shuttle and is now NASA first black administrator.
Not only blacks were drawn to the NASA's new tilt towards diversity.
In April 1983, Sally Ride, an astrophysicist, paved for way for women when she became the first American woman to fly in space aboard Challenger. Franklin Ramón Chang-Díaz, an engineer and physicist, gave Americans of Latin descent a role model to look (way) up to.
Ultimately, history may judge the space shuttle program on the number of miles or days logged in space. However, the program's most transformative legacy lies in the number of youngsters who were encouraged to shoot for the stars after watching someone like them blast into space.
And boldly go where few others had gone before.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun