News & Politics

Brothers to Another Planet


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.

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.”

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 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.”

For Mallett, the moment he was chosen for science arrived nearly 50 years ago, when he was 10. Months after his father collapsed on the living-room floor and died of heart failure, he came upon H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Grief melded with imagination to form a fantasy of traveling back in time to warn his father, and momentum from that early obsession propelled him through a Ph.D. in physics at Pennsylvania State University. His time-travel concepts have recently earned him renown among other astrophysicists, and he’s now writing a book about time for a popular readership. But will it get noticed by black book reviewers?

“There’s self-censorship within the black community. I think it’s a crime,” says San Diego State University librarian Robert Fikes Jr., who has written often about blacks in color-blind research. “Books by black authors that aren’t specific to the black situation don’t get reviewed. A change is long past due, given the fullness of the black experience, which is increasing year after year, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the black periodicals.” In short, a researcher’s work is as invisible before a new African American-themed novel as a firefly crossing a spotlight.

Charles Whitaker, a senior editor at Ebony, counters, “It is fair to say that we would like to receive more ‘color-blind’ titles. But I do believe publishers push their more Afrocentric offerings on us.”

Some black scientists, like Mallett, report that at least after making names for themselves, other black academics, from poets to sociologists, have gone out of their way to laud them.

But it’s the early praise and rewards for disciplined students that will earn seats for African Americans on the ships carrying the first Mars colonists, say the educators working with NASA. After all, as Harris says, “Everyone shows up on this planet with a dream.”

To learn more about Dr. Mallett’s time travel theories, see Dennis Lim’s “What Time is it There? Cosmic Profs Beat the Clock”

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