‘We need every mind we can get,’ Past, present NASA leaders say diversity is key to great discoveries ahead

NASA hosts panel celebrating Black leaders at NASA

NASA Associate Administrator Office of Small Business Programs Glenn A. Delgado and the panelists. (Image: NASA) (WKMG 2021)

NASA held a virtual discussion with a panel of current and past leaders spanning from the Apollo program to the current Artemis program honoring legacies Black leaders have made to the U.S. space agency.

The pre-recorded panel discussion aired Wednesday at noon on NASA TV and online, along with NASA’s social media channels.

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NASA Associate Administrator for Small Business Programs Glenn Delgado moderated the panel of five leaders. In his role at NASA, Delgado ensures small businesses are able to compete for NASA contracts, which can add up to millions, making or breaking a small business.

The “Power of African American Leadership in NASA” panel examined how different leaders throughout the U.S. space program have helped drive success.

The panelists included Brenda Manuel, retired NASA associate administrator for diversity and equal opportunity; Clayton Turner, center director, NASA’s Langley Research Center; Hildreth “Hal” Walker Jr., NASA “Hidden Figure” who led the manufacturing, testing and operation of the KORAD K-1500 ruby laser system for the lunar laser ranging experiment as part of the Apollo 11 Moon landing; Woodrow Whitlow, retired NASA associate administrator for mission support and Vanessa Wyche, deputy center director at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Wyche and the other panelists reflected on their careers and what it took to get to where they are today. The JSC center director said if it were not for the hard work of others before her NASA wouldn’t be where it is today.

“A lot of people, you know, Brenda (Manuel) and Woodrow (Whitlow), the work that they put in to make it so that we can get to where we are today,” Wyche said. “But I’m very proud to say that you know, they paved the way, and then others now are able to stand on their shoulders.”

Clayton, Langley Research Center director, said for him learning to lead was overcoming being an “extreme introvert.”

“I discovered you had to engage with the human being, because that’s what was creating that and that’s what was going to make the best product,” Clayton said.

Asked why diversity is so important to space exploration or any industry Wyche said diversity is tied to innovation.

“Being able to come to work and bring your whole self to work and feel that you are included and that you’re able to contribute allows you to add to the richness of what’s happening here, and and so it’s very important for people to come to work and be able to do that,” Wyche said, adding everyone should be able to see people in leadership that look like them.

“I’ve had people you know say to me, you know, ‘I don’t see anybody,’ you know, this was before we had African Americans in leadership, ‘I don’t see anybody that looks like me, that’s in leadership. Why should I stay here? What’s the path for me?’ And I think, you know, having an understanding that, yes, there is a path for you,” Wyche said.

It’s also been shown that diverse teams perform better, Whitlow said.

“We have to have examples, African Americans in leadership roles if we’re going to bring African Americans into the organization, to help with that diversity. And so that’s why it’s important that we have these examples out there to say, ‘yes, I too can achieve my full potential,’” Whitlow said.

Clayton echoed that saying NASA’s mission “is to reach for new heights to reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind” and that work requires new ideas, unity and innovation to achieve.

“We need every mind we can get. There’s no time no to put anybody to the side,” Clayton said, adding to “reach for new heights to reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind. We need everybody. I mean, everybody, every bright mind that’s willing.”

The event was hosted in partnership with several NASA groups to encourage diversity is one way NASA is celebrating Black History month.

Re-watch the full panel event below.