Dr. Julian Manly Earls: A Man of Many NASA Firsts

February 19, 2021

Dr. Julian Manly Earls over 40-year career at NASA was filled with firsts for the organization. Dr. Earls, a physicist, was first hired as a physicist for the NASA Glenn Research Center where he was appointed into various leadership positions making him the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) first black section head, office chief, division chief, deputy director, and NASA's second black center director1, 2, 3.

Born in 1942 in Portsmouth, Virginia, Dr. Earls was noticed early on for his intellect first by skipping first grade, then when his fifth-grade teacher fostered his love of math, and again in high school when he participated in state and regional competitions in math and science2. After graduating high school in 1960, Dr. Earls attended Norfolk State University to earn a BS in Physic in 1964 then the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry for an MS in Radiation Biology in 19654,5.

"There were only 50 black employees out of 4,000 at NASA,” said Dr. Earls in a 2001 interview with the Ohio paper, The Plain Dealer. “Of those, 20 were scientists and engineers. It was the 60s”6.

In the same year he earned his master's degree, Dr. Earls moved to Cleveland, Ohio to work at the NASA Glenn Research Center where he was continued to be recognized for his intellect and work. Dr. Earls was promoted to be” the head of the Health Physics and Licensing section of the Nuclear Systems Division as well as the Radiological Safety Officer after only three years of working at the Center”1, 4, 5. While working in this role, Dr. Earls earned a PhD in Radiation Physics from the University of Michigan, completed a Harvard Business School Program for Management Development, and founded the Cleveland chapter of the National Technical Association4, 5.

“I really became active in trying to encourage black youngsters to focus upon math and science and increase the numbers of black scientists and engineers by increasing the number of black students who took those courses,” said Dr. Earls in an interview with The History Makers1. “…people blame me for the being the catalyst for starting the movement that said, look, not only do we need more black people working within NASA, but we need to make sure that we have black people in true, powerful management positions here at NASA”1.

Dr. Earls was consistently promoted during his time at NASA. In 1983, Dr. Earls was promoted to serve as the Chief of the Health, Safety, and Security Division; then the Director of the Office of Health Services in 1988; then the Deputy Director in 2002; and finally, in 2003, he was promoted to be the Center’s Director, a role he served in until 20055. As the Director, he conducted research, penned numerous articles and publications such as NASA’s first health physics guides, and developed programs in aeronautical and space propulsion in addition to “space power, space communications, and microgravity sciences”1, 4.

After retiring from NASA, Dr. Earls turned his attention to mentoring students at Cleveland State University as the institution’s Executive in Residence5.

Dr. Earls wrote for over 25 journals, was awarded honorary degrees by multiple universities, was awarded medals for achievement and leadership by NASA, and received the Presidential Rank Award of Meritorious Executive, during his over 40-year career at NASA4, 5. Outside of NASA, Dr. Earls served as a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi and Sigma Pi Phi Fraternities and as a member of numerous groups focused on the advancement of minorities and technology including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Technical Association, the National Society of Black Engineers, the National Society of Black Physicists, and the Development Fund for Black Students in Science and Technology1.  

  1. The History Makers. (2005, January 10). Julian Manly Earls. Retrieved from https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/julian-manly-earls-40.
  2. Black History Everyday. (2019, Mary 12). Julian Manly Earls. Retrieved from https://blackhistoryeveryday.com/2019/05/12/julian-manly-earls/.
  3. The History Makers. (2012). Julian Earls. Retrieved from http://www.idvl.org/sciencemakers/Bio6.html.
  4. Glenn Research Center. (2008, March 2). Biography. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/about/bios/earlsbio_new.html.
  5. NASA. (2016, September 6). Dr. Julian M. Earls. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/feature/dr-julian-m-earls.
  6. Reed, E. (2001, February 3). Moving on up to Cleveland: Friendship help. Retrieved from https://www1.grc.nasa.gov/wp-content/uploads/Earls-Newspaper-Articles-2001-06.pdf.

Photo from NASA's Glenn Research Center4.