A space pioneer charts a course for future astronauts

Seeing few astronauts who looked like himself, Livingston L. Holder, Jr. helps young scientists of color see their faces in STEM careers.

Livingston L. Holder, Jr. first dreamt of floating through space when he saw astronauts bouncing on the moon on TV while he was growing up in Louisville. At the time, none of those astronauts looked like him.

That didn’t faze Holder. He graduated with a degree in astronautical engineering from the Air Force Academy, where he was a pioneer of a different kind. He recalls locking eyes with the only other black engineer in a classroom of 100 people. “We looked at each other and it's like, yeah, we made it,” he says. “We're here."

He became a satellite countdown controller, worked on classified missions and earned a position with the competitive Manned Spaceflight Engineer program. While training as an astronaut, he witnessed the faces of NASA’s space shuttle program shift to include women and minorities, along with the white men who first inspired him. Finally, Holder found himself on the doorstep of his dream: He was chosen to train as a payload specialist for an upcoming spaceflight.

Holder never made it. Before he got the chance to launch, the Challenger exploded, killing seven and sending a nation reeling. As a once-proud space program took time to mourn and regroup, his mission was canceled.

But Holder’s sky-bound dreams took on a different dimension, first at Boeing and then as the head of his own aerospace consulting firm, based in Renton. Now, he hopes other kids can look to him and see they have a place in science, engineering and exploration — no matter how unpredictable the path.

He hopes they can look up and say, “That one looks like me.”

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