LOS ANGELES — Of all of his accomplishments, Hal Walker Jr. says he wants people to remember him for being “a person who didn’t let obstacles that confronted me stop me.”
Walker has known adversity since he was a child. Having grown up before the civil rights movement in Alexandria, Louisiana in the 1930s, there was no way to avoid it. Even with the institutionalized segregation, his love for technology and understanding how things work shined through.
In his lifetime, he’s seen the invention of the color television, microwaves, video recorders and, most important in his life, the laser.
Walker was the person who commanded the laser light to shoot to the moon to measure the distance between it and Earth after the Apollo 11 expedition in 1969. That gave him the opportunity to one day help future generations find their place is science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Like the women featured in the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures,” who worked behind the scenes of the space program at NASA, Walker is part of the history of this country’s space program, but he is quick to point out he never worked for NASA.
“I was not a NASA employee,” Walker says. “I was contracted to do work on one or two of their projects over the years. I was employed by the Union Carbide Corporation in the KORAD laser division.”
Union Carbide Corporation is most known for its production of chemicals and polymers for a variety of industries such as household products, agriculture, oil and gas and more.
The invention of the laser he worked on was in 1960 and Walker joined the project when research and early development on the laser concluded.
“Because the work involved the moon, people sometimes draw the assumption that I was a NASA person, but I wasn’t,” Walker says.
Before working on laser technology, Walker joined the Navy during the Korean War. After four years he left as a qualified electrician’s mate. By 1955, he was an employee at the Douglas Aircraft Company installing radar systems on U.S. Navy jet fighters. He even married and went to college.
After leaving Douglas, Walker spent some time working in manual labor before finding his way to RCA where he worked on the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System for the United States government where he would be the first black technician on their team.
In 1964, Walker began working on a project for NASA. He didn’t spend all his time in a laboratory. The project allowed him to travel the country while testing the laser. Traveling around the country in the 1960s wasn’t always easy as it was the peak of the civil rights movement.
Walker doesn’t recall dealing with any major adversity while working at KORAD, but whatever adversity he faced, he said it was “a sign of the times.”
“People didn’t believe that African Americans could be good at things like technology,” Walker says. “The technology that one might be working with was quite advanced so the presence of African Americans was very limited. Therefore, for them to take the risk of getting us involved was a little bit of a question in their minds about how other people in the world would see them and their company after utilizing African Americans at that level of the technology.”
On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 successfully landed on the moon. In preparation for the Lunar Laser Ranging experiment, which would time and measure the beam from the laser on Earth, astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong secured retro reflectors to the lunar surface. The experiment was a success and the technology is still used to this day.
According to NASA, at the time of the experiment, the moon and the Apollo 11 astronauts were about 244,000 miles from Earth.
Fast-forwarding to 2019, Walker is now the chairman and co-founder of the African-American Male Achievers Network (A-MAN). A nonprofit in Los Angeles that found its beginnings in 1986 when UCLA funded research devoted to early intervention for African-American men.
In 1991, A-MAN became a nonprofit and for the last 28 years Walker has worked to break down barriers that young people feel prevent them from pursuing careers in STEM fields.
“Early intervention is everything,” Betty Walker, an education leader, co-founder of A-MAN and Walker’s wife, said. “What made it so important for youngsters to not be afraid of algebra, physics and chemistry was the fact that you had to put your hands to work and your mind to work.”
Betty Walker believes that early intervention helps children cultivate critical and analytical thinking skills needed to succeed in school, college and thereafter.
In February, the Walkers opened the National Space Society’s first chapter in the continent of Africa, the Cape Town Space Society. Their goal for that program is to help South African students think further about their future in space and “off-world” industries.
In 1997, the Walkers traveled to South Africa with 12 A-MAN participants in tow. The group met then-President Nelson Mandela. They both recall Mandela expressing his desire to have a program like A-MAN in South Africa. Telling them, “do for my children what you have done for your children.”
“The outcomes of what we’re doing there now is fulfilling that promise to President Mandela,” Hal Walker says. “We did it because of the educational, science and technology promotion he was asking us to provide to the South African young people — this would be a part of it.”
The Walkers current focus is on helping prepare the next generation, which faces its own set of issues and obstacles. So, when remembering Hal Walker, the man who helped change Apollo 11 50 years ago, bear in mind his path, tenacity and hunger for always doing better.
And, at his request, remember that he was never the type to let issues stop his “enthusiasm and preparation to continue to succeed in technology.”