Brothers to Another Planet

NASA Tries to Launch Space-Science Dreams

In places like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Harlem, and the South Bronx, under a light-polluted sky cut to ribbons by grids of looming buildings, the stars still tug at young minds. "I am the ghetto child,/I am the dark baby. . . . And yet/I am my one sole self,/America seeking the stars," wrote the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. Now the National Aeronautics and Space Administration wants a new generation of this city's African American students not only to feel the cosmos through metaphor, but to know it in physics.

Of the roughly 6400 astronomers in America, two dozen are black. Facing that and similar voids in its astronaut pool and engineering base, NASA is sponsoring the fledgling City University of New York space science program to draw bright college students into its ranks, but more surprisingly, it's reaching down into junior high and grade school to spark black kids into thinking about getting fitted for a space suit. NASA began after-school programs last week in Brooklyn for junior high school kids to study the science they'll need to be part of the space program decades down the line.

"We can't have an astrophysics program at Medgar Evers College, Queensboro Community College, Hunter College, or the College of Staten Island. But together, we can," explains astrophysicist Leon P. Johnson, chairman of the physical, environmental, and computer science department at Medgar Evers College, and project director of New York City Space Science Research Alliance, which developed the CUNY space science program.

Low expectations can be nearly as destructive as poverty and racism. The simple act of displaying the NASA logo on a classroom door opens young people's minds to careers they were once shut out of, educators point out. A cynic might add that NASA is also shoring up its Democratic base by providing pork for African American members of Congress in the form of computer laboratories and other facilities that they can name for themselves—they're a voting bloc that has often seen space exploration as diverting funds from problem-solving here on Earth.

But less obvious is that NASA's move injects life into color-blind disciplines that black scientists say have been eclipsed within their own community by more overtly Afrocentric pursuits. Some top students lifted their faces from difficult physics textbooks only to receive what amounted to a slap from a black hand.

One example: Two African American undergraduate students on the Harvard University wrestling team were walking from the gym. The younger one, a kid from the Bronx named Neil, complained that his astrophysics courses weren't leaving him time to sleep. The banter stopped as abruptly as their footfalls.

"Blacks in America do not have the luxury of your intellectual talents being spent on astrophysics," declared the elder student, waving his hand in front of Neil's chest. That indictment, recounted in Neil deGrasse Tyson's autobiography, The Sky Is Not the Limit, rings fresh in him today, though he's an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, where he also teaches classes for the CUNY program.

Other black scientists empathize with Tyson. "We hear those things and we don't buy it. You can't dictate to me how I should contribute," says William Harris, assistant professor of computer science at Medgar Evers. "We have to make our contributions wherever we are. Dr. Tyson is helping the CUNY Space Science Program so that black youngsters will get through. You can't get much blacker than that."

But a problem for working astrophysicists is how to balance community outreach with research. It's even tougher to win a Nobel Prize in physics if you're giving up days each month to visit ghetto schools or aggressively seek black interns, though more than a dozen scientists and engineers interviewed for this article say they made such efforts gladly.

Johnson, Harris, and their colleagues have pulled together rigorous NASA programs that reach from college kids down to what may eventually include preschoolers. In four sessions a year, Medgar Evers College (which boasts a new Congressman Major R. Owens Aeronautics Education Laboratory) is hosting about 60 students in a Science, Engineering, Mathematics & Aerospace Academy (SEMAA), for which Harris is program director, and 35 to 45 students in an Aeronautics & Earth Science Academy (AESA), on weekdays after school, Saturdays, and during summer vacations. Classes run three hours, and a SEMAA session runs for eight classes, while the AESA concludes after six. York College in Jamaica, Queens, is also hosting a SEMAA program. The new computer laboratories at participating colleges are equipped with virtual-reality space-shuttle flight simulators.

"Just bring in kids who don't necessarily have a background in science, and we try to change all that," says Harris.

Older students are also being courted for internships at NASA, and "Parent Cafés" will maintain the learning momentum with practical guidance on how to keep studies going in the home. Parents will even replicate some of the experiments conducted by their children to better understand their work. Teachers are also being trained by NASA in science education. At Columbia University, the Institute on Climate and Planets was created for minority students.

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