When space and race converge

Cartoon drawing of objects: rocket, NASA, Covid-19.

Published October 30, 2020


Since his boyhood, Dexter Johnson has been fascinated by space exploration and air travel. Assigned to Langley Research Center in Virginia, Johnson works out of the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. A minister, entrepreneur and frequent motivational speaker as “Dr. Dex,” he also has been an activist for social justice and recently joined President Tripathi’s Advisory Council on Race.

At Buffalo asked him to describe how these very different parts of his experience intersect, and to reflect on the dichotomy between soaring space achievements and the nation’s struggle to achieve racial equity.

Dexter Johnson, PhD ’95, MS ’89, BS ’87, Mechanical Engineering, NASA technical fellow

When the year began, I associated 20/20 visual acuity with making achievable resolutions and setting forth daily focus areas for improvement. Little did I know that this year would bring historic health and political challenges mixed with a resurgence of social injustice and racial tensions. Who expected all of this? I certainly didn’t!

Recent events have caused me to reflect on the journey to bring about racial justice along with huge advances in space exploration, and to think about how they’re connected. Like the unveiled heroes of “Hidden Figures,” I continue to reach for the stars in my own life and, like them, to work toward full civil rights.

Demonstration Mission #2 was successfully launched on May 30, five days after the killing of George Floyd Jr. This was the first crewed commercial flight in the U.S., and the first crewed launch since 2011 of American astronauts from U.S. soil. I was involved in all the pre-launch preparation activities and so very proud of this historic achievement. Yet here I was watching the protests and dealing emotionally with the hurt of this expression of racism when George Floyd was killed.

Ready to ROAR

As COVID continued its course this spring, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd sparked a wildfire of protests against social inequity that heightened racial tensions in this country—again. It was heartbreaking and infuriating to see George Floyd begging to breathe for almost nine minutes. It made me think back to the wrongful death of my friend Jonny Gammage on Oct. 12, 1995. A UB graduate, Jonny suffocated while in police custody after being pulled over by white officers outside Pittsburgh for allegedly driving erratically.

My reaction to events past and present has caused me to form ROAR–Root Out All Racism. This is a movement I’m starting to help eliminate racism and promote social justice. Meanwhile, I have increased my participation in forums and prayer sessions and moderated discussions on race relations.

In July, I took part in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ forum on diversity, equity and inclusion. When President Tripathi invited me to be a member of his new Advisory Council on Race, announced on June 17, I emphatically said yes. I’m enthused about the council’s stated objective “to combat racism and dismantle structural barriers to equality” within UB’s policies, programs, activities and traditions.

Indeed, I’m a rocket scientist today because UB helped launch my career as an aerospace engineer, propelling me to my dream job at NASA, where I’ve worked for the past 30 years. In fact, my career began at the university via the Buffalo-area Engineering Awareness for Minorities  predecessor program, and I now hold the highest technical leadership role at NASA. We are currently working on the next crew and space launch capability for the U.S., called Orion and the Space Launch System, respectively.

As an aerospace pioneer, reconciliation ambassador and excellence cultivator, I aim to ROAR so we can all SOAR–See Our Aspirations Realized!

llustration by Vaughn Fender