Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures
Shelby Jacobs
Columbia Memorial Space Center Exhibit 2018/2019


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As Project Manager of the Apollo-Soyuz orbiter, Shelby Jacobs (Hart High Class President, Class of 1953) designed instru­mentation that would capture one of the most repeated images in space history: the separation between the first and second stages of the Apollo 6 spacecraft in 1968.

Shelby's climb to the top of his field was not an easy one. He pushed through and worked harder than his peers to change the status quo of the field. For all these reasons NASA named Shelby Jacobs one of their unsung heroes.

The Columbia Memorial Space Center is honored to host Shelby Jacobs as he discusses how he worked to Achieve the Impossible.

The Shelby Jacobs exhibit will run through March 2019 at the Columbia Memorial Space Center, 12400 Columbia Way, Downey, Calif.

Photos (above) courtesy of Shelby Jacobs.

Image of rocket separation taken from a camera on the Apollo 6 spacecraft in 1968. The camera was designed by Shelby Jacobs.

Oceanside man celebrated as hidden figure of space program.

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 this winter at a new exhibit at the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey. "Achieving the Impossible Dream: The Life and Dreams of Shelby Jacobs" opened Dec. 15 and 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 ever-present 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 in an interview at his home Monday morning. "I never presumed to limit myself to my own limitations."

Benjamin Dickow, president and executive director of the Columbia museum, said he has known Jacobs for four years and found his story both unique and compelling.

"Here's somebody who doesn't look like the typical sort of pocket-protector engineer" of the 1950s," Dickow said. "He's a great storyteller and it's a great story."

* * *

Shelby Jacobs, right, with Columbia Memorial Space Center President Benjamin Dickow, who created an exhibit in Jacobs' honor in the fall of 2018. Click to enlarge.

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 percent 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.

Jacobs 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, he 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, Jacobs was tasked with designing a camera system that could film the rocket separations for the unmanned Apollo 6.

After three years of design, 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. But it was also the first time video had captured the curvature of the Earth from space.

But the mission's success was overshadowed by another event that same 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 that 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 Jacobs, 79. They split their time between homes in Oceanside and Encinitas.

* * *

Jacobs first 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 the past two years at the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey, where president Dickow came up with the idea for the "Impossible" exhibit idea about six months ago.

The exhibit was timed to open in 2018, because that was the 50-year anniversary of the video's release. But the Jacobs exhibit is just the first of many Apollo-themed exhibits planned at the museum in 2019 to commemorate this year's 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first space capsule to land men on the moon.

The exhibit documents Jacobs' achievements, a photo of 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.

For the Black History Month event on Feb. 16, Dickow said he plans to have Jacobs do a talk. He would also like to invite some of Jacobs aerospace colleagues from the 1950s and '60s to take part in a panel discussion.

"We'd like them to have a celebratory but frank discussion about what working there was like back then and how it's changed," Dickow said.

Joining Jacobs and his wife at the museum that day will be his daughter, Shelley Jacobs Modaff, and her 15-year-old daughter, who is named Shelby, after her grandfather. Jacobs Madoff is the dean of students at River City Science Academy, a charter elementary school in Jacksonville, Fla.

Because of his connection to the Apollo program, Jacobs said he's been contacted lately by many journalists for interviews, including a Canadian television crew and 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."

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Columbia Memorial Space Center Exhibit 2018/2019

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