'Hidden Figure' Shelby Jacobs, Who Designed a Camera System for NASA, Finally Getting His Due Nearly 51 Years Later

If you have ever seen the iconic images of NASA’s Apollo 6 launch that took place in 1968, you have seen Shelby Jacobs’ work, whether you realized it or not.

In 1965, Jacobs was given the task of designing a camera system that could capture the rocket separations for the unmanned Apollo 6 launch. He spent three years testing and perfecting his project, and on April 4, 1968, he got his shot.

Jacobs told the Los Angeles Times his project was notable for two reasons: It proved the viability of the Saturn V rocket separation process, and it was the first time video captured the curvature of Earth from outer space.

Now, some 51 years later, the 83-year-old is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

The Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey, Calif., will run an exhibit called “Achieving the Impossible: The Life and Dreams of Shelby Jacobs” through the spring. There will also be a daylong program at the museum on Feb. 16 in celebration of Black History Month.

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Jacobs, who told the Times he never had any black role models in his field of work, said he’s excited to serve as an example of what can be achieved in spite of the challenges of prejudice, white privilege, and the low expectations that minorities still face.

“That’s the story of my life. I’ve never been apprehensive about doing something that had not been done before,” he told the Times during a recent interview at his home. “I never presumed to limit myself to my own limitations.”

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Jacob grew up a preacher’s kid in the Santa Clarita Valley, just north of Los Angeles. At William S. Hart High School in Newhall, where blacks made up just 1 percent of his class, he stood out as an athlete and senior class president. He earned a scholarship to UCLA, where he intended to study mechanical engineering. The principal of Hart High School warned him that because of his race, many of the doors in his field would be closed to him.

“I didn’t translate his comments negatively,” Jacobs told the Times. “He was letting me know the playing field was not level, and I appreciated his honesty.”

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In 1953, he enrolled at UCLA and spent three years there before being hired at Rocketdyne, a Canoga Park space program contractor that built rockets used in the Mercury, Atlas, Jupiter, and Thor programs. Rocketdyne had 5,000 engineers at the time. Only eight of them were black.

Jacobs told the Times he didn’t hang out with the few black colleagues he had at work because he thought it would be a “springboard to failure.” He chose instead to assimilate as best as he could with his white colleagues, enduring their racial comments and challenging their assumptions when he could.

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He faced constant discrimination and was never paid as well as the other engineers who were doing the same work he was.

When President Kennedy announced the Apollo program in 1961, Jacobs transferred to Rockwell in Downey, where he spent the remainder of his career.

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His giant success on April 4, 1968 was overshadowed by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but even that didn’t deter him. He continued to move up in the ranks and reached the executive level in the space program. He retired in 1996.

Ten years ago, he was named a NASA unsung hero, and after seeing the 2016 film Hidden Figures, he began promoting the need to hire and adequately compensate women and minorities.

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Since then, he and his wife, Elizabeth Portilla, 79, have traveled the country visiting different space museums. Jacobs has continued to encourage museum administrators to highlight the hidden figures of the aerospace industry.

“It’s important to be a pioneer, but I want people to understand that while we appreciate the progress, things need to be done to address the inequality,” he said. “That’s something that was there when I started, and it’s still happening today right up to the very top level of our government.”

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About the author

Monique Judge

News Editor for The Root. I said what I said. Period.