Brothers to Another Planet

NASA Tries to Launch Space-Science Dreams

The CUNY Space Science Baccalaureate Program is eclectic. Computer science plays into space science because of the huge role simulations and data crunching play in astronomy and missions to other worlds. Biology and chemistry are booming, too, as the hunt for extraterrestrial life revs up. Because the Space Science Program began just last year, no students have risen through it from start to finish yet, but the sexiness of the NASA connection has already engendered greater ambitions.

"Last year I was going to be content with my B.S. degree in computer science—'OK, I'm finished. Great.' But the space program was challenging and helped inspire me to be more," says Nataki Komunyaka Richardson, a graduating senior at City College who now plans to pursue master's and doctoral degrees related to space science. At age 30, Richardson is like many enrolled at CUNY, a returning student who worked full-time through most of her studies. Fellow CCNY student Patrick Michel, an immigrant from Haiti with new Ph.D. ambitions, adds, "The Space Science Program opened my mind to the world of science, mathematics, and computational science."

The space science program motivates even marginal students. "I tell the kids, 'You can't do this without calculus,' " Harris says. " 'You can't do it at Columbia and you can't do it here.' " But that tough love works, he adds, because "you can excite them about the possibility of careers in space."

illustration: Patrick Arrasmith

NASA is eager to tap that overlooked pool of talent. In 2001, before the recent round of expansions, the agency says, it spent $4.6 million to nurture science skills among African Americans and Latinos in New York City even as celebrated programs, like one researching ways to probe the ocean of Jupiter's moon Europa, have fallen under the budget ax.

Johnson, a Harlem native and son of a cab driver, sees the NASA push in New York and nationally as a continuation of the way federal investment in science during the Cold War's space race of the 1960s benefited minority students. "I don't think I would have gone away to college if it wasn't for the fact the government was putting a lot of money into science," he says. Still, he adds, "for minorities it's always been a struggle. I've always felt that we would be there, in space, but I was disappointed that African Americans and Hispanics were not part of the initial astronaut group."

Astronauts are among our nation's most celebrated peacetime heroes, but New York City's African American community, arguably the intellectual capital of a people, has yet to send one of its own into space. For a long time it seemed that being a white guy born in Ohio—John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, James Lovell—was your best ticket off Earth. As recently as 1995, the crew of one shuttle mission was entirely white, with four of five being Ohioans.

But it's in rigorous programs, not role models, that Johnson and NASA place faith.

"Kids only see that one person that one time," NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown says of role models. "Then they go home, and what do they see? Rappers, athletes on BET and in videos. How do you counteract that with folks in the sciences? They need constant reinforcement."

The vanguard of African Americans in space science simply had to look beyond color. "I really had the support of the white community," recalls Ronald Mallett a physics professor at the University of Connecticut specializing in classical and quantum theory of black holes, relativistic astrophysics, and quantum cosmology. "It didn't matter to me that the men and women in physics were white, just that they were good, if I were to take them as my role models. And my thesis adviser took me on because he thought I was good and could do the work. Being black—that happens to be an accident of birth that I'm very proud of, but the choice I made was I wanted to understand Einstein's work in space and time. I became a theoretical physicist. Still, it's always nice when people find I'm one more role model."

Mallett rarely draws attention to his race. But a recently updated Web page at his university displays a photo of Mallett, and that prompted an anonymous comment at the Slashdot.org forum for discussing science and technology: "This guy is a NIGGER! Go look at his page!"

Tyson thought nothing of an invitation, when he was a doctoral candidate, to go on television to explain solar flares. But when he saw himself on-screen when he got home, he realized that until that moment he'd never seen an African American scientist teaching a huge, mixed audience about a subject wholly removed from race.

Both Mallett and Tyson found race-blind inspiration as children in the South Bronx. For Tyson, it was staring at the moon from his stoop through a pair of binoculars after his father took him to Hayden Planetarium.

"I saw the mountains and valleys and craters of the moon. It became another world, something to learn about," he remembers. "I knew I wanted to be a scientist since I was nine years old and I never wavered." Although he was a child during the moon shots, he says, "I didn't identify with those guys—not because they were white, but because apart from Armstrong they were all military guys with crew cuts. You have to remember I was a kid in the 1960s."

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