A group of astronauts who are trailblazers for their respective ethnicities are now true "rock stars," having asteroids named for them.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) Minor Planet Center, which oversees the designation of small bodies in the solar system, recently released the list of official asteroid names honoring 27 space travelers of African American, Hispanic and Native American descent. The namesakes include active and former NASA astronauts, U.S. Air Force astronaut candidates and one Soviet-era cosmonaut.
All 27 astronaut-named asteroids were discovered in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter by Marc Buie, a Boulder, Colorado-based astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute, which is headquartered in San Antonio, Texas. Buie is also a co-investigator on NASA's Lucy mission, which, after launching in October, will study Trojan asteroids that circle the Sun, leading and following Jupiter in its orbit.
"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 Buie in a statement released by NASA.
The idea of naming the asteroids for astronauts was submitted to the IAU by a team of scientists and students involved with the Lucy mission. The effort was led by Cathy Olkin, the deputy principal investigator of the Lucy mission at Southwest Research Institute, with support from Keith Noll, a planetary astronomer at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, who serves as Lucy project scientist.
"Last summer a group of us got together to honor a diverse group of astronauts who have traveled to space and the pioneers who paved the way for these explorers," said Olkin. "But there are many more, and we hope to add their names to the sky in the future."
The new honorees include Joe Acabá and Stephanie Wilson, members of NASA's Artemis team who are among the first U.S. astronauts preparing for a return to the moon, and Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, a former cosmonaut who was the first Cuban and first person of African heritage to fly into space.
Also among the new namesakes is Michael Lopez-Alegria, who is set to become the first retired NASA astronaut to launch again to the International Space Station as the commander of Axiom Space's first commercial spaceflight in 2022.
The 27 astronauts (and cosmonaut) join nearly 40 other space explorers whose names were previously added to asteroids. The earlier namesakes include the members of the Apollo 11 moon landing crew; the fallen Soyuz 11, space shuttle Challenger (STS-51L) and space shuttle Columbia (STS-107) crews; and the first human to launch into space almost 60 years ago, Yuri Gagarin.
The full list of newly-named asteroids and the astronauts they honor, as cited by the Minor Planets Center, is as follows:
- (92579) Dwight
Edward (Ed) Joseph Dwight Jr. (b. 1933) was the first African American astronaut candidate. He served in the Air Force, working as test pilot before serving in the Aerospace Research Pilot School. After leaving the Air Force he went on to become an influential sculptor and author.
- (92892) Robertlawrence
Robert H. Lawrence Jr. (1935-1967) was selected for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program. He was the first African American to be selected as an astronaut and was the only MOL astronaut with a doctorate. He perished in a plane crash before he had the opportunity to go to space.
- (92894) Bluford
Guion Steward Bluford Jr. (b. 1942) was the first African American astronaut in space. He was a part of four space shuttle missions between 1983 and 1992, which included deploying satellites, testing robotic arms, and conducting research. Bluford logged a total of 688 hours in space.
- (95449) Frederickgregory
Frederick Drew Gregory (b. 1941) is a retired astronaut who was the pilot on one space shuttle mission and commander on two other missions. In 1989, he was the first African American to command a space flight. He also served as deputy administrator of NASA.
- (97508) Bolden
Charles Frank Bolden Jr. (b. 1946) is a former astronaut who flew on four space shuttle missions (two as the pilot and two as the commander). From 2009-2017, he was NASA's administrator.
- (97512) Jemison
Mae Carol Jemison (b. 1956) is a retired astronaut who flew on the space shuttle in 1992. There she conducted scientific experiments. She was the first African American woman to travel to space and the first African American woman admitted into the astronaut training program.
- (103733) Bernardharris
Bernard Anthony Harris Jr. (b. 1956) is a former astronaut who flew on two space shuttle missions. In 1993, he was a mission specialist who carried out research as part of Spacelab D-2. As payload commander on the space shuttle Discovery in 1995, he became the first African American to conduct a spacewalk.
- (103734) Winstonscott
Winston Elliott Scott (b. 1950) is a former astronaut who flew two missions to space. Scott completed three spacewalks to retrieve satellites and evaluate the assembly of the ISS. He also performed experiments on the effects of zero gravity on the human body.
- (103737) Curbeam
Robert Lee Curbeam Jr. (b. 1962) is a retired astronaut and the first person to perform four spacewalks on a single mission. While in space, Curbeam helped fix a solar panel and install a new truss in the ISS. He spent more than 37 days in space and 45 hours on spacewalks.
- (103738) Stephaniewilson
Stephanie Diana Wilson (b. 1966) is the second African American woman to fly in space. She has flown on three missions, and as of 2020, logged the most time in space of any African American astronaut (42 days). She also served as the ground commander for the first all-women spacewalk in 2019.
- (103739) Higginbotham
Joan Higginbotham (b. 1964) is an electrical engineer and former astronaut. As an engineer at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, she participated in 53 space shuttle launches before becoming and astronaut and the third African American woman to go to space.
- (104698) Alvindrew
Benjamin Alvin Drew (b. 1962) is an astronaut who flew two space shuttle missions to the ISS as a mission specialist. He logged more than 25 days in space. He also conducted two spacewalks.
- (108096) Melvin
As an astronaut, Leland Devon Melvin (b. 1964) helped build the ISS, with flights aboard the space shuttle Atlantis in 2008 and 2009. Melvin is also an engineer with experience using sensors to assess damage of aerospace vehicles and was an NFL football player with the Detroit Lions.
- (108097) Satcher
Robert Lee Satcher Jr. (b. 1965) is an orthopedic surgeon, chemical engineer and retired astronaut. He was the first orthopedic surgeon in space and participated in two spacewalks as part of a space shuttle flight to the ISS in 2009.
- (114705) Tamayo
Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez (b. 1942) was the first person of African ancestry and the first Hispanic (Cuban) cosmonaut to travel into space with the crew of Soyuz 38 in September 1980. He received the first Hero of the Republic of Cuba medal and many other honors.
- (115015) Chang Díaz
Franklin R. Chang Díaz (b. 1950) was an astronaut for 25 years and flew seven space shuttle missions from 1986 to 2002. He logged more than 1,600 hours in space and helped to deploy the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter. He is the first Costa Rican astronaut and is also of Chinese descent.
- (116162) Sidneygutierrez
Sidney M. Gutierrez (b. 1951) is a former astronaut. He was the pilot on the space shuttle Columbia in 1991. That mission was the first Spacelab mission dedicated to biological sciences. He was the commander of a space shuttle Endeavour mission in 1994 that used radar to study the Earth.
- (117703) Ochoa
Ellen Ochoa (b. 1958) is a former astronaut. In 1993, she was the first Hispanic woman to go to space. She flew four space shuttle missions, logged nearly 1,000 hours in space, and became director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
- (117704) Lopez-Alegria
Michael Lopez-Alegria (b. 1958) is a retired astronaut who flew on four NASA missions: three aboard the space shuttle, and one on the Soyuz spacecraft for a long-duration mission aboard the ISS. He has performed 10 spacewalks during his 257 days in space. While in space, he performed experiments on materials, biotechnology and combustion.
- (118768) Carlosnoriega
Carlos I. Noriega was born in 1959 in Peru and became an astronaut in 1996. He was a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Atlantis on NASA's sixth mission to dock with the Russian Mir Space Station, and aboard the space shuttle Endeavour mission to deliver and install the first set of solar arrays to the ISS.
- (118769) Olivas
John D. Olivas (b. 1966) is a former astronaut. Olivas flew two space shuttle missions, in 2007 and 2009, to assemble the ISS. He conducted five spacewalks during those two missions.
- (119890) Zamka
George D. Zamka (b. 1962) is a retired astronaut. Zamka piloted the space shuttle Discovery in its October 2007 mission to the ISS. He was the commander of the space shuttle Endeavour mission in February 2010, an ISS assembly mission.
- (119993) Acabá
Joseph Acabá (b. 1967) flew to the ISS in 2009, 2012 and 2018, aboard both the space shuttle and the Soyuz spacecraft. On his first flight, he participated in spacewalks to assemble the space station. As of July 2020, he has spent 306 days in space.
- (122554) José M. Hernández
José M. Hernández (b. 1962) was born into a migrant farming family. He became an astronaut and was a mission specialist on space shuttle Discovery's mission to the ISS in 2008. Prior to his time as an astronaut, Hernández helped to develop the first full-field digital mammography imaging system.
- (122555) Auñón-Chancellor
Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor (b. 1976) is an engineer, physician, and astronaut. She has collected meteorites in Antarctica, served as an aquanaut on an undersea research station, and was a flight engineer on the ISS for six months in 2018.
- (126965) Neri
Rodolfo Neri Vela (b. 1952) is the first Mexican person to travel to space. In 1985, he was a payload specialist on the space shuttle Atlantis. During the flight, he conducted experiments, including many on the subject of human physiology.
- (127030) Herrington
John Herrington (b. 1958) is a former astronaut and a member of the Chickasaw Nation. Herrington was a mission specialist aboard space shuttle Endeavour for the 16th space shuttle flight to the ISS, performing three spacewalks during the mission.