#BlackAtNASA celebrates diversity in space

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Rarely does one’s workplace headshot spark a viral trend. But for one NASA employee, his photo brought attention to the Black people building America’s future amongst the stars.

When Tyrone Jacobs Jr. hopped on social media on March 14, he thought he was making a simple life update: that four months after becoming an engineer at Johnson Space Center in Houston, his official NASA headshot just dropped. An outpouring of love and support flooded his page as commenters applauded him for being a brother with locs succeeding in the aerospace field at time when hair discrimination is still at large in workplaces and schools. Many of the supporters were parents who thanked Jacobs for being their children’s inspiration. Because they too see a future for themselves at NASA.

As Jacobs’ post garnered millions of views, shares and likes on Instagram and X, formerly Twitter, it also triggered a family reunion of sorts. Other Black NASA employees welcomed Jacobs to the administration by sharing their own headshots along with the hashtag #BlackAtNASA. They built camaraderie amongst each other by hosting meetups and rocking their own natural hairstyles: braids, fades, twists and locs. Without knowing it, Black NASA employees were building a sense of community beyond the agency. Social media users collected the photos of Black women scientists, Black men engineers and more to share with followers, friends and family. Organizations like Girls Who Code shared a collection of the Black women at NASA photos as a way to show Black girls that they can make their mark in space, too.

Diversity has always propelled NASA’s missions forward, even when it wasn’t well known. The timing of the Space Race runs parallel with the modern Civil Rights Movement. As freedom fighters were riding, marching and protesting against discrimination, Black men and women were forging the foundations of space exploration. Historians have since highlighted and honored their work, which included the calculations and engineering needed to get the first man on the moon through NASA’s Apollo Program. Their genius also paved the way to today’s Artemis Program, which is the administration’s mission to establish a long-term presence on the moon and later Mars.

The #BlackAtNASA posts bring the importance of diversity full circle by exposing the different paths Black people can take in the administration beyond becoming an astronaut. Tyrone McCoy was a TV reporter for about 4 years before they made their way to NASA as a public affairs specialist. Over the past two and a half years, McCoy has been pitching stories to the media and measuring the impact of outreach efforts for the administration. Some of their proudest achievements include increasing LGBTQ+ representation in NASA and pitching stories and creating content around environmental education.

Raised in Philadelphia and Georgia, McCoy didn’t spend their childhood near any of NASA’s 10 centers. Although they didn’t grow up with the allure of the space administration close by, becoming an astronaut was still one of McCoy’s aspirations as a kid. McCoy made their own #BlackAtNASA post as a proud manifestor who’d made their dream come true in another way.

“I was still inspired by the magic of and the enigma of space, and realized what I could do to help,” McCoy said. “Maybe I’m not going to space. Maybe I’m not an astronaut. But I felt like my role was to tell the story that they couldn’t tell because sometimes people who work with numbers don’t do well with words.”

McCoy talked to Black Joy about the popularity of the #BlackAtNASA trend and the freedom authenticity brings in workplaces.

The questions and answers were shortened for clarity.

The #BlackAtNASA trend started with a headshot of a Black gentleman who recently joined NASA. Why do you think Tyrone Jacobs Jr.’s headshot became so beloved in the NASA community and beyond?

At the heart of it all, you can’t be what you can’t see, and I think that’s why a brown man who is young looking and is showing his natural hair with an official NASA seal and flag behind him was such a rave. I think we don’t see a lot of that in many federal spaces, but it’s not because people aren’t there. I saw someone say on X, that ‘It’s time to unhide these figures.’ And I agree, but I think because of so many different reasons, you want to be careful about what you share and who you share what with and to. So, in essence, Tyrone showing his headshot, and then other people chiming in saying, ‘Oh, this what we doing?’ – it gives you a sense of pride to know that people are rallying behind brown people who are showing their authentic skin in these spaces.

That space happens to be NASA which historically has had a colorful history when it comes down to certain things. Sometimes you see a lot of the same type of people in leadership, and it’s easy to believe from the public perspective that maybe other people don’t work there. That’s not the case. There are a lot of brown faces at NASA.

I loved that you brought up hairstyles, because that was another thing I noticed people were celebrating. We’re still fighting against policies policing how we look, like our natural hair. Do you foresee this affecting predominantly white work spaces?

I don’t know that it will be something that will help in terms of acceptance for people who don’t understand natural hair, but I think it does bode well in terms of pride. It shows you that there are people who do not have to press their hair if they don’t want to. I think seeing that kind of representation – not just Black, but also what appears to be authentic for that person and understanding that everybody’s version of authentic will look different – that it will help in terms of visibility. There are still going to be people who, for one reason or another, don’t understand why people need to have kinky hair. And we can’t change that. But what you can show is that kinky hair – those locks, those braids – are beautiful and professional. So it can help change the narrative, or at least from a visibility standpoint, get people to understand that those things maybe don’t need to be shared in a negative light or have negative connotations.

You’re mentioning a lot about the importance of visibility. I’m wondering how you envisioned NASA before you joined. Did you ever see yourself working here?

I always wanted to work at NASA. But like many of us being both younger folks and also brown folks, I thought you had to be a different color, or have a different profession, to work there. I am not by any stretch of the imagination an engineer. So I thought there was no way that was actually going to turn into fruition. It wasn’t until I got into my master’s program at the Harbert College of Business at Auburn when one of my assignments for one of my classes was to pull together a five year plan.

I went to a rocket launch attempt and I was just reinvigorated. I saw someone, who’s now my colleague, doing a broadcast and she’s a brown woman. I thought to myself, ‘She’s got to be a communicator, at least I hope.’ I’m thinking I can put two and two together.

The launch didn’t happen because it got screwed up due to weather, but I went back home and told my husband and grandma, ‘I’m going to work at NASA.’ So I went back to my assignment and wrote, ‘Five years from now, I want to be working in the communications department at NASA. Hopefully announcing or being a part of a launch broadcast.’

I manifested it for myself. I wrote it down. I said this is what I’m going to do, and months later – not even like half a year later – it happened. I got offered a role that August, and then I started that role in November. My experience here has been interesting, to say the least, because there’s always something new. I tell people even to this day – two and a half years into it – it’s like working at the adult Discovery Channel.

What do you hope Black children gain from your journey of being a TV reporter to joining NASA?

No matter where you start, that doesn’t mean that’s where you have to end up. I feel like transient things are happening in our world, and people are waiting for someone to tell them what’s right and what they should be doing. Hopefully people understand that your journey is yours. You are the author of your own story. So when you get to a place where things may be hard or difficult – where you can’t see a path to whatever it is you’re working through – I hope that people can take from this story, or a story similar to this, and say, ‘Hey, this kid did it too.’

My hope is that when people figure out how they want to show up, wherever that is in the world, they’re able to do so in a way that they’re proud of and that feels like their authentic selves.

As a Black gay man, do you mind talking about the importance of authenticity in the workplace knowing that there were times you couldn’t show up that way in the past?

I grew up Southern, primarily raised by my grandmother who was a single mother and had 16 brothers. I share that to say that in my family, we didn’t have time for subtleties. So I was very fortunate to have an intrinsic sense of who I was as an individual from a very young age. If I ever had an issue with people calling me anything other than what I thought I was, my grandmother would reiterate to me constantly, ‘That’s not your name. You answer to Tyrone. That is your name.’ And that translates into so much confidence when you’ve got a person breathing that kind of life and positivity into you.

My time in TV was extremely restrictive for me because I was a young, brown man working in the South and I looked younger than I was. So my whole time in TV was spent in a tug-of-war of sound different, look different, dress different. I was limited to the colors that I could wear on air. And that comes with the territory, so it’s not a complaint. But even after knowing who I was, that kind of makes you lose a little bit of who you thought you were because now you’re questioning yourself like, ‘Well, all this time it was good enough. Is it good enough, now?’

After I got out of TV, I had time to step away from the public eye. After stepping back, I got a chance to really learn who I was and what I wanted to do with my life moving forward. And I think that showing up in this space, I’m hellbent in showing up as me – a person who challenges the status quo. Is it always comfortable? Nothing’s always comfortable, right? But I feel grateful there’s an organization that I get to call my professional home that accepts me showing up with nails and nobody’s trying to say my fingers are offensive. I had random faux locs because I just wanted to do it one day, and nobody said anything offensive about that.

Yeah, it’s tough, because it’s the government. And yes, there are some restrictions. But at the end of the day, it’s good to be able to show up here as all of the things that I am and be not just loved and accepted, but appreciated.

Let’s talk about your time at NASA. Just working in the space administration seems like a lot of fun. Do you mind sharing some of your favorite moments of Black joy?

Being a part of the James Webb Space Telescope launch was a moment in time in a capsule. I got to do some pitching for that, and not a lot of people can say they’ve done that. So I’m gonna pat myself for that one. In many different ways, being a part of the Artemis I launch, which is essentially the start of the Artemis generation, that was huge. That’s our version of Apollo and I can say that I pitched some stories for that. I can say I helped with some partnerships for that. That’s a Black boy joy moment.

I call myself an intersector because I exist in several different spaces: I’m Black. I’m a communicator. I’m openly gay. I’m very, very, very, very proud of the work that I’ve done for the LGBTQIA+ community at the agency. I worked with our team to host our very first Pride flag raising ceremony at the agency ever. We had NASA Administrator [Bill] Nelson come out and take some pictures with the pride flag. That was the start of the administration offering guidance saying, ‘Hey, let’s all celebrate.’ And we successfully raised the Progress Pride Flag, or Pride flag, for LGBTQ+ Pride Month at almost every NASA center. Last year was a big one too because NASA as an agency marched in the Washington, D.C. Capital Pride Parade for the very first time and the deputy administrator and her husband joined us. That’s huge.

Another moment was when I spearheaded an Instagram live with the Field Museum out of Chicago and our Earth scientist to drum up support for Earth Day. It got like 11 million views and it was in the middle of the day. Everybody told me, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t do this. This is not an ideal time of day.’ I got to host it, which was also really, really cool because, again, we talked about writing those affirmations out – saying ‘I want to work at NASA in the communications department. I want to do a launch broadcast.’ Well, I didn’t do a launch broadcast, but I did do a live Instagram broadcast with our scientists. There are probably some other smaller things, but I’ll stop there.

BlackAtNASAPride

The NASA Headquarters Pride Alliance marches in the 2023 Capital Pride parade in Washington D.C. with Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy.Tyrone McCoy

We talked in the beginning of the interview about the legacy of diversity at NASA. You’ve said yourself that NASA has a colorful history when it comes to that. Now that you’ve seen this trend explode on social media, how’s that making you think about your own participation in legacy of Blackness at NASA?

I’ve always felt proud of being here because I understand that, for some, it’s been a dangled carrot over their heads as an opportunity to be in a space that wasn’t maybe traditionally designed for them, or of accepting of them. I don’t feel like that’s been my experience. But I do know, understand and recognize that for some people that has been their experience. And so it makes me proud to be a part of something that showcases for people that, ‘Hey, you can still do this. It doesn’t matter if you got one rejection, 100 rejections or 1000 rejections. If this is your goal, stay steadfast to that thing. Work hard consistently and the right people who need to see you will see.’ You can’t get worried about what someone else’s journey looks like because at the end of the day, you’re walking two different paths. You started at two different destinations.

The Black at NASA hashtag makes me proud to be where we are now and even more proud to see where we’ll be now that a fire has been ignited under the butts of some others who have thought about joining and we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s not for me.’ Maybe it is. There are so many different divisions here at NASA. It’s not just the missions and the mission director. It’s the people behind the mission of taking the astronauts to space. They are the storytellers, the historians, the communicators and the accountants. It’s just like every other business. To be just one of the people behind the rocket – one of the people behind the missions – is an inspiration to me every day, and I hope it’s an inspiration to other people. So I feel like my legacy will hopefully be one that inspires people to keep going. Be proud of who you are and where you are and to bloom where you’re planted.



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