NASA Names 27 Asteroids After Black, Hispanic, and Native American Astronauts

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

NASA has named 27 asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter after Black, Hispanic, and Native American astronauts to recognize their contributions and inspire a new generation of potential space explorers. Among those honored include Stephanie Wilson, Joan Higginbotham, Ed Dwight Jr., José Hernández, and John Herrington.  Asteroids are minor planets that are part of our solar system — they are made of minerals and rock, while comets are made of dust and ice. President Biden nominated former Senator and astronaut Bill Nelson to head NASA on Friday.

Why this Matters:  NASA, like many American industries, has struggled with diversity — only 18 Black astronauts have gone to space. As of June 2020, 72% of NASA employees are White or Caucasian, 12 % are Black or African American, 7% are Asian American or Pacific Islander, 8% are Hispanic or Latino; and 1% are American Indian. Naming these astroids after astronauts of color is a small, but meaningful step in addressing these inequities.  “It’s an honor and a privilege to name these asteroids in recognition of fellow space explorers while also adding to the message of the power and value of diversity for all human endeavors,” said Marc W. Buie, an astronomer who discovered the 27 asteroids in the last couple of decades

Inspiring a New Generation

According to a 2019 report from the American Institute of Physics’ (AIP) National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy (TEAM-UP), only a small percentage of the students who obtained physics and astronomy Bachelor’s degrees were Black and Hispanic. The namesakes of these 27 asteroids have made important contributions to the field of astronomy, that these astroids commemorate. Jose Hernández, for example, traveled to the International Space Station in 2009 and developed the first full-field digital mammography imaging system. Meanwhile, Joan Higginbotham had a role in 53 shuttle launches and even visited the ISS as a mission specialist. John Herrington, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, performed three spacewalks. Ed Dwight Jr. was the first Black astronaut trainee back in 1961. 

All 27 asteroids are close to one another and can be found between Mars and Jupiter.  The team in charge of naming these asteroids at the International Astronomical Union (IAU) intends to continue adding more diverse names to the sky in the future. These asteroids were originally named in relation to their position in space, but now they are named for people who have broken race and gender barriers in space exploration.

To Go Deeper: The tales and positions of all 27 asteroids can be found here.

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