Beyond His Wildest Dreams
Naval Aviator Overcomes Segregation to Join NASA
As a young boy in the 1950s and early 1960s, Winston Scott scarcely dared to dream.
The world of space travel was just becoming possible, and the limits of what man could achieve suddenly seemed boundless. Astronauts were special, not only celebrities, but practically superheroes. "It was like watching Batman on TV: It's cool, but I don't think I can do it," Scott remembered. "As a child, I never thought I would fly in space."
Scott was also black. He would attend segregated schools through the ninth grade. Everywhere he looked, there was someone to tear him down. Opportunities seemed limited. Even his own friends and family, he said, didn't care about the space race.
"Many people in the African-American community didn't pay much attention to the space launches. I can remember watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon in the living room. I was alone. Nobody watched it but me. ... The moon landing had nothing to do with African-Americans," he said. There were other, more pressing concerns: education, finding decent jobs, civil rights.
But there was something about the moon and the stars that touched Scott deep inside. In fact, the first book he ever checked out from the library was about Project Mercury, NASA's first man-in-space program. Its goal included orbiting a manned spacecraft around the Earth, a mission fulfilled by Marine Col. John Glenn in 1962. Scott even wrote a book report about it.
Still, he said, "at that time, I never thought that I would become an astronaut. It was just something that was interesting to me. ... I was always interested in science and technology. I'm the kind of kid that bought batteries and lightbulbs and hooked them up. I opened up my toys at Christmas to see how they worked."
Scott later went to college at Florida State University. He should have majored in engineering, he said, "but in those days, in my segregated schools, there was no one to tell us what engineering was. There was no exposure to engineering. I had no idea what it was all about."
So Scott chose his other love: music. In fact, he still plays the trumpet and the bass guitar, as well as a little piano. He pointed out that "people who study mathematics, engineering and science are often musicians. The thought processes involved in math are the same thought processes involved in music. The two are linked in the brain." Albert Einstein played violin, he said. Glenn played the trumpet.
"That's what I thought I did best," Scott said. "Well, college broadened my horizons and introduced me to an engineering discipline." He started taking more and more engineering classes.