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14 HBCUs will be part of historic NASA launch to the International Space Station

Flags, pennants and memorabilia will travel in the unmanned Starliner spacecraft

On Friday, the next scheduled launch of NASA’s Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station will be carrying flags, pennants and other memorabilia from 14 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

The tradition of taking flags and memorabilia to outer space began in 1969, when NASA sent astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon on Apollo 11. Since then, it has become a common practice to symbolize U.S. achievements in human space exploration. The mission, called Boeing Orbital Flight Test 2, will be the Starliner’s second mission and will take off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

The schools represented will be Clark Atlanta, Morehouse College, Spelman College, Alabama A&M, Florida A&M, Howard, Morgan State, North Carolina A&T, Prairie View A&M, Southern, South Carolina State, Tennessee State, Allen University and Tuskegee. In 2018, Boeing partnered with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to invest $6 million into HBCUs. The investment focused on three areas: scholarships and internships, faculty and administrators, and immersive “boot camp” experiences at Boeing sites across the country for students.

“These specific schools are also schools that we’ve done a significant amount of recruiting from for internships,” said Theodore Colbert III, CEO of Boeing Global Services. “We happen to have a really important and powerful relationship with several historically Black colleges and universities. Doing things like this demonstrates to the world that we, as a company, also believe that that relationship is important. It’s important because it helps us work towards some big goals that we have in the diversity and equity space with regards to closing representation gaps within the company.”

A 1996 Morehouse graduate, Colbert helped to advance the idea at Boeing to represent HBCUs on the mission. He serves as the enterprise executive sponsor for the company’s Black Employees Association and was a part of the founding leadership for Boeing’s partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. Aside from promoting diversity and closing representation gaps in Boeing and the aerospace industry, Colbert and his team established this plan as a way to inspire HBCU students to pursue aerospace careers. “This is all about demonstrating our commitment to working with our schools, to recruit very talented leaders and do something very different and unique. Something only we can do,” said Colbert.

Mohammed J. Khan, professor and head of the Department of Aerospace Science Engineering at Tuskegee, is excited to see the legacy of HBCUs represented on the mission. “Something like this is really going to highly motivate students,” said Khan. “Obviously, it also helps with those aspiring aerospace engineers.”

Tuskegee is on the list of 15 HBCUs accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Commission of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. The mission of the school’s program is to matriculate quality professional graduates through education in the disciplines and technologies related to aerospace vehicles and systems. It was also one of the HBCUs on the list that benefited from Boeing’s $6 million investment.

Students of all majors and classifications are excited about this mission, not just those studying aerospace engineering. “I think it’s important because it shows how far HBCUs, especially Howard, have come and how much more we are capable of,” said Naiima Miller, a junior marketing major at Howard. “It’s important also because HBCUs have been disregarded for so long, but now we are finally taking up space, no pun intended.”

With the inclusion of these flags on the Starliner’s second mission into orbit, NASA has found a new way to encourage HBCU scholars to reach for the stars. When the spacecraft returns to Earth, Boeing will give the flags to their respective institutions. “It will be displayed prominently so that everyone can look at it and feel proud about it,” Khan said. 

A senior broadcast journalism major from Orange County, Calif., Sarah Jones-Smith writes for The Hilltop, Howard University’s student newspaper, and her writing has been published by The Los Angeles Wave, and more.