At 83, hidden figure of space program finally gets his due
Oceanside resident Shelby Jacobs, 83, is responsible for one of the most iconic video images of NASA’s race to put a man on the moon in the 1960s.
It’s the oft-seen, slow-motion color footage of a ringlike section of the Saturn V rocket separating from the Apollo 6 spacecraft and spinning slowly away toward Earth, 200,000 feet below.
Yet for all of his 40 years working his way up to the executive level on the Apollo and space shuttle programs, Jacobs, who is black, faced near-constant discrimination from his white colleagues and was never paid as well as other engineers doing the same work.
To avoid rocking the boat, Jacobs kept a low profile in his working life. But in recent years, he has stepped into the spotlight to serve as a role model for minorities and women who face workplace discrimination.
His triumph against extreme odds is being celebrated at an exhibit at the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey. “Achieving the Impossible: The Life and Dreams of Shelby Jacobs” will run through the spring.
Jacobs said he’s honored by the recognition, but what he’s most excited about is a daylong program at the museum on Feb. 16 to celebrate Black History Month. Jacobs never had any black role models in his field of work, so he’d like 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 said during a recent interview at his home. “I never presumed to limit myself to my own limitations.”
Jacobs grew up the son of a preacher in the tiny black community of Val Verde, just north of Santa Clarita. To help his family make ends meet, he picked watermelons, cantaloupes and potatoes as a boy and bused restaurant tables as a teen. Blacks made up just 1% of his class at William S. Hart High School in Newhall, but he stood out in many other ways: Jacobs was a three-sport varsity athlete and senior class president.
He assumed that after high school the best job he could get was as a restaurant cook. Then he took an aptitude test that showed a high proficiency for math and science. When he earned a scholarship to UCLA, where he planned to study mechanical engineering, his high school principal took him aside to warn Jacobs that he should expect many doors to be closed to him because of his race.
“I didn’t translate his comments negatively,” Jacobs said. “He was letting me know the playing field was not level, and I appreciated his honesty.”
In 1953, Jacobs enrolled at UCLA and three years later was hired at Rocketdyne, a Canoga Park space program contractor that built rockets used in the Mercury, Atlas, Jupiter and Thor programs. At the time, just eight of Rocketdyne’s 5,000 engineers were black.
Jacobs hadn’t intended to become a pioneer, but he learned ways to cope. He didn’t hang out with his few black colleagues because he thought that would be a “springboard to failure.” Instead, he assimilated as best he could with his white co-workers. When they would make racial comments, he didn’t get angry. He simply challenged their assumptions.
Jacobs stands 6 feet tall and has a dark complexion he jokingly refers to as “good and black,” so he always stood out in the crowd, whether he wanted to or not. Just as he had in high school, Jacobs turned that into an advantage with his approachability, positive nature and humble personality.
After President Kennedy announced the Apollo program in 1961, Jacobs transferred to Rockwell in Downey, where he spent the rest of his career.
Jacobs’ specialty was designing engine components, hydraulics, pneumatics and propulsion systems. In 1965, he was assigned to design a camera system that could film the rocket separations for the unmanned Apollo 6.
After three years of testing and perfecting, the cameras recorded the famous footage just seconds after the launch on April 4, 1968. Jacobs said the video proved the viability of the Saturn V rocket separation process. It was also the first time video had captured the curvature of Earth from space.
But the mission’s success was overshadowed by another event that day: the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
It was a troubling full-circle moment for Jacobs. Inspired by King’s marches for voting rights in 1965, Jacobs spent two weeks in Georgia that summer canvassing neighborhoods to register black voters. The racial divide there was so extreme, he and other California volunteers were warned to avoid sharing a cup or an ice cream cone with their white fellow volunteers.
For the last 15 years of his career, Jacobs worked on the space shuttle program, where he was project manager of the external tank disconnect systems. He rose to the executive level of vice president, which was known as “mahogany row” for its luxurious wood desks.
He said his rise to the top was so shocking to some of his white colleagues that workers would frequently come to his office just to gawk at a black man behind the desk. He got there, he said, through a mix of being blessed with a head for math and science and a strong work ethic.
“I didn’t always stay inside the lines of what was expected of me,” he said. “I was an envelope-pusher.”
He retired in 1996 and moved with his then-wife, Diane, and their daughter, Shelley, to Oceanside. Diane died in 2011, and in 2014, he married Elizabeth Portilla, 79. They split their time between homes in Oceanside and Encinitas.
Jacobs started garnering attention for his work 10 years ago, when he was named a NASA “unsung hero.” But it wasn’t until he and his wife saw the movie “Hidden Figures” in 2016 that he decided to begin promoting the need to hire and adequately compensate women and minorities.
The film dramatized the true story of black women mathematicians who faced extreme discrimination but made important achievements working for NASA in the early 1960s.
Jacobs said the women depicted in the movie, as well as Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball, and President Obama, who was the first black president, had more than just smarts, talent and gumption. They had the temperamental suitability to face the slings and arrows of prejudice and not react angrily.
Since 2016, the Jacobses have traveled the country visiting space museums, where he has encouraged their administrators to highlight the hidden figures of the aerospace industry. He has been a featured speaker for two years at the Columbia Memorial Space Center, where museum President Benjamin Dickow came up with the idea for the “Impossible” exhibit about six months ago.
The exhibit documents Jacobs’ achievements, a photo from his famous video, one of Jacobs’ old suits, his briefcase, his ID badges, family photos and even one of the hand-carved pipes he often carried around with him at work.
In 2019, NASA will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the space capsule that first landed men on the moon. Jacobs has already been contacted for several video and newspaper interviews as well as by an author who would like to write his biography.
In each interview, Jacobs said he tries to deliver the same message.
“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.”
Kragen writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.