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AstroNoir Blog Posts

America’s multifaceted truth: NASA, SpaceX, and Black Lives Matter

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

“What university do you go to?” A white friend asked me. I replied “UCL.” They looked shocked and asked me “What do you study.” “Geophysics.” Silence. They then replied, “Wow, I just would have never guessed that you were that smart.”

Me being in this industry comes as a shock to those in power and also normal civilians, but why? Is it because I am bubbly and clumsy, is it because I show interest in other subjects? Or, is it because I am a Black woman?

At age 5, my cousin who was studying engineering, at the time, came to visit us in the UK from the United States. He wanted to work for NASA and one night he showed me the vast astrological features in our night sky. One star was flashing, and I asked him what it was. He told me it was the International Space Station (ISS) and told me how scientists lived and worked up there. He later did a talk at my school about space and the STEM field. From then on, I decided I wanted to work within the space industry. Luckily, I was surrounded by Black family members who never doubted my ability and always encouraged me. I was raised on my mother’s Trinidadian grandfather’s catchphrase that “there is no such word as can’t”.

Nevertheless, I have had numerous tests over the years, academically and emotionally. I failed two math exams in my first year, whilst still passing the “hardest” math exam. I did not have the same educational background as everyone else in the course, and even with my efforts, it was hard to catch up with the math. This led me to have to change from Geophysics to Earth Sciences. From then on, it felt like I was always fighting to prove myself to my university and my peers, even after getting a job at FDL NASA/Europe in my second year. In my third year I bumped into a professor, whose first sentence was “You’re not still going for that physics dream, are you?” I just sometimes wonder, if I had been white and male, would my competence have been questioned so much? Would physics be considered a goal and not a dream?

The European Space Agency (ESA) send mostly men to space, and none of those astronauts have ever been black. I cannot apply to be an astronaut for NASA as I am not an American citizen. As a Black European, most of us have a long history with Europe. Our families have either migrated a long time ago or come from colonised places. Some of us are even part European ourselves. However, we are still different, we are still considered to be “other” and we are still not a significant percentage of the people found in high up places. In my industry I am underrepresented. Surprisingly in the European space industry, I am less represented than in the United States. How can we fix this?

In the autumn term of my third year, I wrote an article named “Black Women in Space” for one of my modules. The research I did for this article really opened up my eyes to the discrimination faced by Black women in the STEM field. This year, 2020, I decided to work more with diversity. During American Black History Month, I did a talk to young Idaho students about my personal STEM experience and the Black people who have contributed greatly to the field. I worked with Naaut for a “Women in Space conference”, where I met the exec team of United Kingdom Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (UKSEDS). I now volunteer as part of UKSEDS diversity and podcast teams.

In May, I was fortunate enough to be accepted on the NASA Social for the Crew Dragon Launch. A few days later, I was also recommended by ESA to NASA to be a Subject Matter Expert for their SpaceApps COVID-19 Challenge. Naturally, I was exhilarated.

Space X crewed mission leaving launch complex 49A at NASAs Kennedy Space Centre.


The NASA SOCIAL, due to COVID-19, ran on a private Facebook group as supposed to in-person like usual. I was thrilled to see that there were many different types of people. Including my personal space mentor Anushka Sharma, founder of NAAUT and an ex-colleague of mine at FDL NASA/Europe, who has encouraged me to express my voice as a young Black woman in the space industry.

The following two weeks were to be filled with exciting announcements, then the few days leading to the launch were lined up with interviews with NASA astronauts and administration. This was a great distraction from the real-world problems of COVID-19 and unemployment that were being felt globally.

The days before the launch was filled with great tours and also Q&A’s. All I was required to do was tweet about everything, and whilst tweeting the man who created the flashing light on the ISS followed me.

During one of the Q&A’s with Black NASA employees Leland Melvin, Charlie Bolden, Josh Dobbs, I built up the confidence to ask a question about diversity. A subject that for some reason, we have been conditioned to feel guilty to bring up.

My question during the Q&A with Leland Melvin, Charlie Bolden, Josh Dobbs


Luckily, the Q&A ended up discussing my question in detail. With all men encouraging everyone to follow their dreams. However, I felt like the subject had been filtered to be tolerable for the white members of the audience and therefore wasn’t necessarily helpful for minorities.

May 27th, launch day, everyone worldwide was excited. Getting to watch Bob and Doug go through the routine of getting into the tesla to the space rocket was excellent. It was amazing seeing the twitter community watching the same screen as I was. My family were watching in different countries, and my little siblings were going to see history. This day felt monumental. However, unfortunately, due to weather, the launch was scrubbed at last minute and rearranged for March 30th.

The days that followed from then to now, quite frankly, have been a blur.

George Floyd, a victim of police brutality.


By May 28th, everyone had known about the case with George Floyd, a 46-year old Black community leader that was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota over a suspected counterfeit bill. This was not the first murder of a Black person by police officers since the beginning of quarantine. Derek Chauvin had left his knee in Floyd's neck for almost 9 minutes, as 3 colleagues watched, Floyd died from asphyxiation, he was later dragged onto a stretcher and left for dead. This was all displayed in a lengthy 20-minute video.

Derek Chauvin, George Floyd's murderer.


Every pointless murder is felt within the Black community, this death was not unlike the others. Unfortunately, we have been conditioned to continue with our day to day lives, because the system has not changed yet. It came out, that this was not the first murder of a minority that Chauvin had committed. He has had 18 prior complaints. One involving the murder of Wayne Reyes in 2006. He had been given a slap on the hand and continued working for the force.

One of the multiple burning buildings during these protests.


Protests started. People were angry, but for some reason, this time businesses and institutions followed. My university department followed suit, and for the first time since I attended the university, they acknowledged the presence of their Black student body. [I would like you to bear in mind that I was the only Black British person in my school year in my department, even though I had put down on the form that I was mixed Afro-Caribbean and white. Other than this there were 3 other Black students, all of which were international, which allowed UCL to make a large profit from them. The year below us had the same pattern with one mixed-raced English girl and only international Black people. Another Black student and I discussed this email, we said we are grateful for the acknowledgement. However, this email was a little too late, this was not the first murder of Black people by police officers, and subjects such as the Windrush generation being deported during the time we were at university had also not been discussed previously. It all seemed like a trend, that they couldn’t avoid.

At this point, I couldn’t help but feel a bit embarrassed to continue to use the Launch America hashtag. I felt dirty encouraging the country, for giving it praise, whilst the country was simultaneously killing my brothers and sisters.

More than half of my family are from the Caribbean, my ancestors chose to move to England during the Windrush. However, most of their siblings moved to the states, as it was cheaper, closer, and they were offered the American Dream. The days following the dubbed launch, I had first-hand information from my cousins about the situation in New York, L.A, Washington D.C, and Atlanta. I saw the tension that was building over there and feared for my family’s lives but felt that as I was working for two different NASA projects that I couldn’t speak out too much.

The Empire Windrush. A boat that brought in those from the Caribbean that helped rebuild the UK after world war 2.


Friday 29th, I tried to go to the store. About 5 delivery men, who my white boyfriend had previously spoken to over the course of 2 months about this same problem, had collected on my doorstep and I couldn’t open my door. I asked them kindly to move, they listened but gave me no response. They had previously given me a similar interaction, so I thought nothing of it. I came back from the shop within 5 minutes, now about 7 men were collected on my doorstep. I asked again if they could move and told them that this wasn’t safe because of the COVID-19 situation and them handling other people’s food. One of them told me “Have you not seen the government’s news; 6 people can be together.” They made a narrow path for me to get to my door, then one of them starting coughing and laughing close to me. This was followed by coughs from others surrounding me until I managed to open the door. I went upstairs told my boyfriend and then being the person, I am, I went back downstairs to record their number plates so that this couldn’t happen to someone else. My mum and friends encouraged me to call the police, which at this point terrified me even further due to the current events. Luckily for me, the police officers were my age and kind. They believed me and told the drivers to leave. However, I still question whether this would have happened to my white boyfriend had he asked them to move on the same day?

“There is a fear about being a Black woman. I fear judgement, backlash, uproar even death at the hands of hate. I bleed blood, it ain't no colour but red, but the colour of my skin and the curls on my head make me the enemy. They warrant my red blood spilling out onto the ground.”- Rachel McBride.

Saturday 30th, this was the day that the rest of the world decided to show support for our American counterparts. The protests had now spread to London, UK, the city I called home and unlike the protests [convientely named riots] of 2011, I was old enough to join and make my voice heard. However, instead of joining my family and protesting, I began mentoring for the NASA Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge, a role that unknowingly served as a break from reality. It allowed me to see how the world is so small and connected, and how if we come together, we could really make a difference and solve real-world problems. On this same day, I was also lucky enough to join the Space for Humanity zoom conversation just before the launch of crew dragon. In this zoom call, they were only talking about the launch. I thought it was unfortunate because of how obvious the police brutality/protests situation had escalated. Cas Anvar, an actor on the expanse, then started to discuss his point of view on the current political climate and stated, “We can’t bring racism to space” and that “we need to clean up our house” first.

Rick Tulminson discussed his recent blog post, which mentioned how the launch would be overshadowed by the current political climate. He discussed how if the launch occurred on the 27th the headlines would have stated: “On the Day When US Corona Death Count Hits One Hundred Thousand, Trump Attends Rocket Launch”.

Donald Trump making his way to his campaign shoot at St John Church, Washington D.C, after pepper spraying everyone in the vicinity including clergymen and priests so that he could have a free space.


The launch occurring on the 30th would show that “US cities burned {whilst} Trump was giving a speech about two middle-aged white guys flying on a billionaire’s rocket.” Tulminson stated that “Wednesday’s number of 100,000 dead Americans was horrifying. And “This weekend’s riots are horrifying. And while the success of the Dragon is a huge and positive message, this may not be the moment for it.” This rang true to me as I was posting both launch America posts whilst simultaneously criticising America, and I was also choosing to post more space content even though my mental state was focused on the protests. Black astronaut Livingston L. Holder then came into the zoom conversation and stated that unfortunately “this is America’s truth” and went on to explain his experience with the United States of America and the space industry as a Black man. This conversation was vastly different from the previous Q&A that I had been a part of, as it had seemed that in a matter of days, people had already stopped holding back, and started to speak America’s truth.

The launch was successful, my siblings watched, and it was historic.

Crew dragon space rocket


Mike pence then stated "American astronauts returned to space on an American rocket from American soil for the first time in nearly 10 years. You did it." The science was great, the curiosity and adventure were all there, but this, like almost everything else in America had become politicised. I felt dirty, but I had another day left of NASA work for SpaceApps.

The following day, I cried for hours. I was worried about my family and the general state of the world. I was moving back to my mum’s in France on Monday and that concerned me for a multitude of reasons. Me being Black and trying to enter a different country was also one of them. However, I had to supervise the NASA SpaceApps, and because I was excited about it before, I wasn’t going to give up now. I like to think that science is separate from the whole race thing, and the scientists I surround myself with tend to be more liberal. [Science is not outside of race, this will be another blog post]. However, I still had a sour taste from tweeting launch America for two weeks leading up to these protests. I also decided to put my new volunteer position on my Linkedin, some had liked it and congratulated me, whereas some people simply decided to just look at my profile.

Whilst mentoring, I ended up joining the discord for one group. They were mostly from various countries in Central and South American, with a member from Spain too. They had created a fantastic app to solve a problem faced with COVID-19. They asked if they could speak in Spanish, and because I understand it, I said they could. Their group was so diverse, and they had such beautiful ideas that could help so many people. It reminded me that this is why I got into science because it gives us hope. It makes us believe that the future could be bright and that we can solve problems, no matter how big or how small.

I moved the following day, back to France and since then I have been quarantining in a small town not too far from my mum. It has been beyond pleasant. I have seen Black men jog around worry-free, I have seen interracial couples minding their own business and I feel safe. However, when I turn on my computer or phone, I’m reminded that this isn’t everywhere, that there are real-life dangers out there and that my family, for the time being, are not safe. My university emailed asking to form a group for the Black people in our department, as my friend said, it’s progress. I suppose my white friends posting the black tiles for #BlackOutTuesday, and the fact that Black astronauts can openly talk about their oppression is progress too. George Floyd's murderers have been charged, and Breonna Taylor’s case has been reopened. Nonetheless, we are not done, there is still so much left to do and we have only just crossed the foot of the mountain. For us to progress further we need this anger to last longer, it can't just be a phase this time.

Protests are continuing as I type, police are still out there hurting people and this time it's not just my brothers and sisters, but your grandfathers too [Buffalo, New York, U.S.A]. Systemic racism is real, no matter the number of my Facebook [ex-]friends that deny it. Colourism is occurring worldwide, colonisation made sure that Black was seen as less globally. Young [&old] dark-skinned boys [&girls] are being killed frequently by the police in the UK, Australia and too many other countries. We need change, and we need it now.

To find out more about the Black Lives Matter movement have a look at their twitter:

If you can donate, here is an article for 24 ways to Donate in Support of the Black Lives Matter movement:

In loving memory of all those lives that were ended prematurely by the police.

The list goes on.


This blog post was written by Chaneil James.

It was later edited by Jasper Anstey, a copywriter based in Barcelona.

844 views3 comments


Rachel Lyons
Rachel Lyons
Jun 19, 2020

Chaneil, thank you for your thoughts and for sharing your personal experience with this community. I'm glad you got the opportunity to attend Space for Humanity's launch party, and that there was a message that was meaningful to you. We recently released a Statement of Solidarity, and would love to hear your thoughts on it. Feel free to email us and I will respond personally on there. :)


Chaneil James
Chaneil James
Jun 10, 2020

Thanks Tamara for the kind words and for becoming a member! Our stories really do matter, and I’m happy you took the time to read mine.


Chaneil - what an amazing, beautiful essay. Thank you for sharing it, and for being a positive light in the world. #BlackLivesMatter - and our stories matter.

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