In the late '50s and early '60s, Morgan Watson, like many teenagers at that time, became interested in space. But if someone had told him that in a few years he, an African-American from Tensas Parish, would be helping to test and design the rockets that would one day send Americans to the moon, he wouldn’t have believed them.
“I would have looked at them with an ‘Oh really?’ kind of look, because it was just so far out of people’s imaginations,” said Watson.
But by his early 20s, Watson, the oldest child in a family that had picked cotton for generations, was majoring in engineering at historically black Southern University in Baton Rouge. He’d picked cotton himself each fall at harvest time, the last time in fall 1960.
“I had to do well in college,” he said. “I didn’t want to go back to that.”
In a surprising confluence of the space race and the civil rights movement, NASA was looking for young engineers just like him.
President John F. Kennedy early in his administration had signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to hire minorities, and the NASA was growing fast, with lots of jobs to fill. But it wasn't easy to entice minority scientists to a place like Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, in the heart of the Deep South.
So the agency began recruiting young black engineers already in the South. Watson and a handful of top engineering students at Southern were the first to take part in this new co-operative.
Two cohorts of Southern students were in the initial class of recruits. They would spend alternating semesters there, starting in fall 1963. Watson was part of the second group, which went to Huntsville in spring 1964.
Watson worked three semesters in Huntsville and then, after graduating, worked for two years for NASA in New Orleans before returning to Southern in 1968. He still teaches engineering courses at the university. He also has decades running his own engineering firm, MEL Inc.
Working at NASA was his first professional job and he said the space agency treated him and the other student engineers well. He started in the quality-assurance lab, checked the reliability of rocket parts before moving to the propulsion and vehicle engineering lab.
“We had to design heat shields to prevent the gas from getting up in the fuel tanks and causing an expulsion,” he said.
But the Southern students couldn’t help but notice the lack of people like them.
“All the black people we saw were the cooks and the janitors,” Watson recalled.
Outside the grounds of the space center, the Southern students went home to segregated Alabama where the color line was still in full effect. Nevertheless, he recalled fondly the local black families who housed him and his classmates up and cooked their meals.
“We went to church Sunday,” he said. “It was just like an extended family.”
And on many weekends the college students would took road trips to places like Nashville and Atlanta.
Coming from Southern, Watson had an unlikely advantage over the older NASA engineers: “I already knew how to do my own computer programs.”
The previous fall Watson had taken a coding class on the first computer he’d ever seen: a room-size computer Southern had just obtained.
During his days in New Orleans working at the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, Watson helped design part of the Saturn V rocket that would later propel Apollo 11 to the moon. On July 20, 1969, he watched along with the entire country as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. Watson was confident, he said, albeit anxious.
He remembers when President Kennedy promised in 1961 to send a man to the moon and return him to earth by the end of the decade. It seemed forbidding to the young man.
“As you sit at night and look up in the clear sky in northeastern Louisiana, you’d imagine and wonder if we were going to get there,” Watson said. “The path was not laid out. There was no road map to get to the moon.”