JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) – The Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures brought to light the work of three African American women in this country’s space program. There is another hidden figure who worked for NASA for over 20 years, and she is from Moss Point, Mississippi. Sharon McDougle made history and is now helping children reach for the stars.

McDougle suited up Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel into space.
McDougle suited up Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel into space.(Sharon Caples McDougle)

Sharon Caples McDougle began her career in the Air Force as an aerospace physiology specialist.

McDougle said, “After I got out, I struggled as a lot of veterans do. I was about to rejoin the service because I was having such a hard time trying to find employment. And about six months out, a friend of mine that used to be in the Air Force with me, he was out here working with the space program, and he contacted me.”

That friend encouraged her to apply for a position with NASA.

“I drove from California to Texas and came down and made history as the first black crew escape equipment. And as CEE, if you ever hear me say C-E-E, that’s what I’m talking about, Crew Escape Equipment Department, first black suit technician”, McDougle said.

She says her career was thrilling and fulfilling. McDougle’s work kept the crews safe.

McDougle said, “No matter what country they came from, man, woman, whatever, they want that orange launch entry suit as a safety precaution. It was life-sustaining equipment in case they had a loss of cabinet pressure aboard the space shuttle or if they had a bailout scenario where they had to actually leave the vehicle and bailout.”

A highlight is suiting up Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel into space.

“I felt like, you know, I thought she would be more comfortable with me,” McDougle said. “Not saying nobody else could have taken good care of her. Not at all, but I thought that she should have the best.”

McDougle hopes to encourage children to consider careers in STEM and to have big dreams.
McDougle hopes to encourage children to consider careers in STEM and to have big dreams.(Sharon Caples McDougle)

McDougle’s father died when she was only four years old. When she was eight, her mother was killed in an accident a few blocks from their home.

“She was almost back home, and a driver under the influence hit her on the driver’s side with such force. It knocked her out the passenger side and knocked the hole, and this is one of those big steel station wagons. So real cars back then, you know, and knocked the seat out”, said McDougle.

McDougle, the ninth of twelve children, was then raised by her oldest sister. She has poured her life experiences and love for the space program into this book, Suit Up for Launch with Shay. Shay is her nickname.

“Everybody thinks about the white space, the spacewalk suit. You know, that’s the suit they usually think of. But now they know about the orange suit, you know, so it’s not just a costume. This is actual life-sustaining equipment”, McDougle said.

McDougle’s husband is also from Moss Point and works for the space program as a scuba diver.

McDougle plans to continue the book in a series. The honors keep coming. This weekend she will be a guest of the National Women’s History Museum for a free virtual reading and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Virginia for a live chat and book signing.

You can learn more about McDougle’s book, Suit Up for Launch with Shay here.

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