Living the ‘impossible dream’

As a high school student in the 1950s, Shelby Jacobs “dared to dream the impossible dream.” Now, at nearly 84 years old, Jacobs said that dream has been fulfilled, and that his life has exceeded his wildest imaginations.

Jacobs is a retired aerospace engineer who worked on NASA’s Apollo and Space Shuttle programs for 40 years. Before retiring in 1996, he served in several roles including project manager of the Apollo-Soyuz orbiter, and designed the camera system used to capture iconic images of Apollo 6’s rocket separation in 1968.

Jacobs was one of the first black engineers hired into the space program in the mid-1950s. He eventually reached the executive level of vice president of the space shuttle program during the last 15 years of his career.

“I am a hidden figure,” he said, referring to the “Hidden Figures” biographical drama film based on the nonfiction book with the same title about black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race.

Earlier this month, Jacobs was recognized as the first “Constituent of the Month” by Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano), who started the program to “highlight outstanding North County San Diego and south Orange County residents who have gone above and beyond to help their neighbors, give back to their community, and make the country stronger.”

Jacobs splits his time living between homes in Oceanside and Encinitas with his wife, Elizabeth Portilla Jacobs.

“As an African American in an industry with few people of color at the time, Mr. Jacobs faced significant difficulties, including unequal pay and often unfair treatment,” Levin said in his address on the House floor. “Now, Mr. Jacobs serves as the role model he never had for himself, showing young people of color what they can achieve in the face of racism, discrimination, and inequality of opportunity, and calling for action to address injustices that still exist today.”

Jacobs grew up north of Santa Clarita in the small, black community of Val Verde. He was one of very few black students in his high school, where he played as a varsity athlete and served as senior class president. It was during that time when he demonstrated high proficiency for math and science in an aptitude test, and went on to earn a scholarship to UCLA as a mechanical engineering student.

His high school principal at the time suggested Jacobs pursue a different trade because society at the time was not open to the idea of a black engineer. Jacobs said his principal didn’t doubt him — he had already demonstrated his potential and capability to go far — but was simply informing him of reality. 
Still, Jacobs “dared to dream the impossible dream” anyway.

“My story is from the back of the bus to the front of the bus,” he said.

He recalled the time when he rode a Greyhound bus during his family’s move from Texas to California. At the age of 7, he said had known better than to sit in the seat right behind the bus driver, but he did it anyway, referring to it as an early sign of his aspirations. At the time, black people were prohibited from sitting in the front of the bus in the South, so his mother took him to the back of the bus.

Jacobs called himself a “benefactor of the Cold War” because he was hired at Rocketdyne, a Canoga Park space program contractor that build rockets for several NASA space programs, a decade before the Civil Rights movement to help the United States dominate spaceflight capability over the Soviet Union.

When Jacobs first started his engineering career, he was surprised that it was men who held key positions in his field. He recalled his time in National Honor Society in high school, in which he was not only one of few black student members but one of the few male members in general.

“The smart people were women,” he said.

Fulfilling the “impossible dream” did not come without struggle. Jacobs rose to high-level positions and was known to take on projects, but he still wasn’t compensated as highly as his white male colleagues.

“I always worked above my pay grade,” he said.

In his speech about Jacobs, Levin notes that Jacobs did not have a role model like the one he is today. Jacobs agreed, explaining that before him there weren’t black role models in fields such as his. He noted it was the same for women as well.

“When I was a kid I didn’t know what an engineer was,” he said. “I didn’t know anybody who was an engineer, black or white.”

Jacobs acknowledges that he has been a role model for quite some time, but with Levin’s recognition of him on the House floor, his role model status has reached another level.

The retired aerospace engineer reflected on being named the first of Levin’s “Constituents of the Month.”

“Blacks don’t normally get first up of anything,” he said.

He is also the subject of the first of many exhibits to commemorate this year’s 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the spaceflight that took the first two people to the Moon, in the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey.

According to Jacobs, utilizing talent and skills to make a contribution — whether it’s in the aerospace industry or another endeavor — can help break barriers like the ones he and many other hidden figures broke.

For the last several years, he and his wife have traveled around to encourage space museum administrators to highlight the hidden figures of space history, and to emphasize the need to give everyone equal opportunity and pay.

“Our country needs to embrace its creed of equal opportunity,” he said. “We’re still fighting about equal pay …  if we really believe in equal opportunity we should allow anybody to come and try to qualify for anything at hand.”

Jacobs’ vision is for the country to eventually live up to that creed, which means it’s not there yet. 

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