City proposes to rename Berachah Campus in honor of late NASA engineer

single-meta-cal January 14, 2021

The City Council introduced a resolution Thursday night renaming the Berachah Campus on 3011 Sparkman Drive in honor of late NASA engineer Dr. Robert Shurney.

The City desires to name the campus, “The Dr. Robert Shurney Legacy Center,” in recognition of Dr. Shurney’s valued contributions to the U.S. Space Program. As one of the most important leaders in the history of manned space flight, Dr. Shurney was a trailblazer in the African-American community.

“Dr. Shurney was one of the first African Americans to work in the U.S. Space Program,” said Mayor Tommy Battle. “Despite the obstacles he faced, he had an incredible career and was instrumental in the development of the Saturn V rocket and design of the lunar rover.”

The Dr. Robert Shurney Legacy Center & Library

Huntsville is working to redevelop the Berachah Campus, which will also be home to the new North Huntsville Public Library. The library, which is being built on the first floor of the Berachah Campus, will span approximately 19,000 square feet and include several amenities, such as an open/bookstore-style floor plan, expanded meeting spaces, private study rooms, a computer/workforce development lab, a Makerspace Studio, a children’s storytime room, an early literacy center, and much more.

The $9 million library is nearing completion and is already a huge win for the North Huntsville community.

“The Huntsville-Madison County Public Library is honored to share a space at the new Dr. Robert Shurney Legacy Center,” said Huntsville-Madison County Public Library Interim Executive Director Cindy Hewitt. “Our library’s mission to create, explore and connect is reflective of the trailblazing career that Dr. Shurney led at NASA.”

Dr. Shurney’s Story

Dr. Shurney enjoyed building and designing things; however, he was forced to withdraw from school to financially support his family during the Great Depression. Soon thereafter, he was drafted into World War II, where he served as a medic for the U.S. Army for three years before returning to civilian life.

After marrying the former Susie Flynt, the couple returned to California. The Shurney family eventually moved to Nashville, where Dr. Shurney’s life would change forever.

“Despite the obstacles (Dr. Shurney) faced, he had an incredible career and was instrumental in the development of the Saturn V rocket and design of the lunar rover,” said Mayor Tommy Battle.

Dr. Shurney, who had four children with his wife, took a position as an Engineer at Riverside Hospital in the 1950s. It was during that time that Dr. Carl Dent, the hospital administrator, urged Dr. Shurney to attend college – something many would say was impossible for a 35-year-old Black husband and father in the South at that time.

But Shurney didn’t let that stop him. He went on to graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and Electrical Engineering from Tennessee State University in Nashville in 1962.

Excited by the innovative work happening at NASA, Dr. Shurney applied for a job there upon his graduation but was rejected.

Career & Accomplishments

Seeking better opportunities, Dr. Shurney reached out to his sister-in-law who knew Dr. & Mrs. Martin Luther King. The Kings contacted U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy who, along with Black Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, convinced NASA to hire Dr. Shurney.

The rest was history.

Upon returning to Huntsville, the newly hired NASA employee recalled his first meeting with the Mercury Astronauts. They were looking for the engineer in charge of weightlessness training.

“And when they finished asking all the whites, the whites pointed to me,” Shurney said in a past interview. “It was my program.”

Dr. Shurney went on to train 90 percent of the program’s early astronauts and was also part of the Apollo Program. He coordinated aircraft and hardware schedules and testing systems/components for the U.S. human spaceflight program carried out by NASA.

James Lovell, an astronaut for the Gemini and Apollo programs, wrote, “Many people think the space program was the exclusive domain of white, middle-aged men with crew cuts. But the reality is that African Americans have played an active and important part in space exploration since the very beginnings of the program.”

In his initial essay he wrote for NASA, Lovell cited Shurney for his vast contributions to the Apollo Program.

‘Active & Important Part in Space Exploration’

Dr. Shurney continued his education while working at NASA. At the age of 65, he received his Ph.D. in physics from Columbia Pacific University in San Rafael, Calif.

In 1990, after 36 years of government service, Dr. Shurney was awarded the First Lunar Apollo Flight Award, the Apollo Achievement Award, and the Skylab Achievement Award, along with a myriad of certificates of appreciation and letters of commendation.

After retiring, Dr. Shurney’s service to his community did not stop. He lectured at college campuses around the country and judged numerous science fairs. He was also an ardent fundraiser for his alma mater, Oakwood Junior College – now Oakwood University.

The engineer died in 2007 at the age of 86, less than a month from his 87th birthday. A memorial service was held at Oakwood College Seventh-day Adventist Church in his honor.

Years ago, Shurney must have felt the whole world was against him. Today, he is receiving the recognition he so richly deserves for leading humans into space and to the surface of the moon.