February is Black History Month. It is a time when we celebrate the achievements of African Americans and recognize their notable contributions to our country and its history.

To honor this special time, we are spotlighting influential African Americans whose lives, careers and pioneering efforts in the fields of aviation and engineering have paved the way for future generations.

Guy Bluford: First African American Astronaut in Space

Guy Bluford
Photo Credit: MPI/Getty Images

Born in Philadelphia in 1942, Guy Bluford served as both an officer and a pilot in the U.S. Air Force before he went to work for NASA. In 1978, he was selected to participate in the NASA astronaut training program. With several degrees in aerospace engineering to his merit, Bluford made history in 1983 when he became the first African American in space as a member of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

It’s important to note: Historically, Bluford may be known as the first Black astronaut in space; however, it was Robert Lawrence who became the first Black astronaut in American history. Sadly, he was killed on a test flight in December 1967, never realizing his dream of traveling into space. Lawrence earned his PhD in physical chemistry and—like Bluford—served as both an officer and a pilot in the U.S. Air Force.

Wanda Austin: First Woman and African American to Hold CEO Position of The Aerospace Corporation

Wanda Austin

Born in The Bronx, New York in 1954, Wanda Austin is considered a trailblazer and pioneer for women in the U.S. aerospace industry. With a doctorate in systems engineering, she was the first woman—and first African American—to hold the position of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of The Aerospace Corporation, which employs approximately 3,600 employees and has annual sales revenues totaling more than $917 million. Austin was not only responsible for ensuring the national security within the space community, but she was appointed by President Obama to be on the Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (a group that advises the government on the future of space missions.) Austin retired in 2016 but remains an active consultant for the corporation.


Lonnie Johnson: Successful African American NASA Engineer and Inventor

Lonnie Johnson

Born in Mobile, Alabama in 1949, Lonnie Johnson has made a name for himself on many levels. He is not only a successful NASA engineer and an important member of the U.S. Air Force government scientific establishment, but he is the inventor of the wildly popular toy, the “Super Soaker,” which topped $200 million in sales in 1991! Johnson’s passion for engineering began at early age when he entered a science fair in high school. He was the only Black student in the fair and created a compressed air-powered robot that he named “Linex,” which earned him the first-place award. He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering. He also holds an honorary PhD in Science from his alma mater, Tuskegee University. Johnson founded his company—Johnson Research and Development Co.—and currently owns two technology-development companies that develop and manufacture revolutionary technology. Notably, Johnson is “part of a group of African American inventors whose work accounts for six percent of all U.S. patent applications.”1

Walt Braithwaite: Pioneer of Computer-Aided Design/Manufacturing at Boeing and Highest-Ranking Executive at the Company

Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1945, Walt Braithwaite knew from an early age he would enter the engineering field. Raised from humble beginnings, he took correspondence courses in diesel engineering and worked as an apprentice in a maritime machine shop. He moved to the U.S., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in computer science. As a Boeing Sloan Fellow, Braithwaite attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he earned another master’s degree in business management. Little did he know when he joined Boeing’s Fabrication Division in 1966 as an associate tool engineer that he and his team would go on to develop one of the most important inventions of the 20th century—a computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) system for Boeing. This groundbreaking achievement helped transform the aerospace industry, allowing airplanes to be designed and “manufactured” digitally instead of through the time-consuming task of manually drafting the mock-ups of new airplane models. After an extensive and impressive 34-year career with Boeing, Braithwaite was named President of Boeing Africa, making him the highest-ranking Black executive at Boeing. He retired in 2003.

Ursula Burns: First African American CEO of a Fortune 500 Company

Ursula Burns
Photo credit; REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Born in 1958, Ursula Burns is the ultimate success story of an intern who worked her way to the top. Raised by a single mother in the housing projects of New York City, she attended what is now New York University Tandon School of Engineering, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. She went on to earn a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Columbia University. Burns joined Xerox as a summer intern, straight out of Columbia, and worked her way up to Chief Executive Officer (CEO), making her the first African American CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She served as CEO for seven years and then held the position of Xerox chairwoman for another seven years. In 2014, Forbes rated Burns as the 22nd most powerful woman in the world. She is also known for other civic positions, which include serving as a leader of the STEM program of the White House and the head of the President’s Export Council. From 2018-2020, she served as the chair and CEO of VEON and as a senior adviser to Teneo. Burns currently serves on the board of directors of Uber.

Do you have a passion for engineering? As you can see from these amazing success stories, an engineering degree can set you on a path to a futureproof career. It could even land you in the history books someday! Discover what possibilities are open to you with an engineering degree from Vaughn College. Apply today.

1 References: Karlin, S. (2002-07-01). “From squirts to hertz [Lonnie Johnson, inventor]”. IEEE Spectrum39 (7): 46–48. doi:10.1109/MSPEC.2002.1015464ISSN 0018-9235.