BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Morgan Watson grew up in St. Joseph, Louisiana and picked cotton. He never imagined he’d one day work to send the first man to the moon.
He and six other men became the first black engineers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to help send the first man to the moon during the Apollo 11 mission.
“It was great feeling knowing that I would be in the number to help get the first man to the moon. Our group was among the best and brightest engineers working on the [Apollo 11] mission,” Watson said.
During President John Kennedy’s administration, while a divisive political climate in which segregation reigned below the Mason-Dixon line, a group of black engineering students from Southern University was chosen to “break the ice” on a new initiative and become interns at NASA. The group moved to Huntsville, Ala. to work at the Marshall Space Flight Center, SU says. There, Watson worked on several missions, including the Saturn Rocket Missions, in which he tested rocket components.
“We were treated professionally and assigned meaningful tasks. We couldn’t fail because we knew that we were paving a legacy. I, personally, didn’t want to fail because I knew where I would end up - back in the cotton field,” Watson recalled.
While not working at NASA, Watson remembers experiencing segregation. He recalls a Ray Charles concert where there was a “rope right down the middle between the white and black attendees.” Despite that, Watson says community bonds formed among the interns and they were taken in by other black families and invited into their homes and churches.
When the Apollo 11 Mission began, Watson was tasked with testing engine components for the launch. He says he wasn’t intimidated by working with senior engineers because he’d taken the first computer science course offered at SU and continuously took courses at local colleges. SU says he even wrote his own coding programs to complete his assigned tasks.
“After watching recent reports on the mission’s anniversary, it brings back memories of how important my work was and the impact it made. Because I grew up picking cotton in northeast Louisiana, it was hard to visualize that my life would take a dramatic turn once I entered college and started working for NASA,” said Watson.
After his success on the Apollo 11 Mission, Watson graduated from SU and was immediately given a job by NASA to work on the thermodynamics of the Saturn V in New Orleans. Then in 1968, he returned to SU to teach in the engineering department. After retiring, SU says he started an engineering consultancy firm that helps local and state agencies with community projects.
In 2016, at the university’s Founders’ Day ceremonies, Watson and his fellow classmates were awarded with the President’s Medal of Honor.
Reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the mission, Watson says he’s proud of his work and the opportunity he was given to create a legacy. He also says he’s indebted to his alma mater, SU, for giving him the opportunity and for being a “bridge over troubled water” for black students.