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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.

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At the same time, as graduation approached, he knew he could do more with his life. He turned his eyes to the sky that had always fascinated him. Flying "looked like something that would be rewarding to accomplish," he said. "It's something very difficult that not many people get to do. You get a sense of accomplishment and a sense of meeting a challenge and overcoming it ... a sense of fulfillment."

He applied to flight training programs for both the Air Force and the Navy. The Navy responded first, with a date for Scott to report to Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS). He was designated a naval aviator in 1974.

"Becoming a military officer, a Navy officer, was difficult. It's not an easy thing for anybody to do, not just for minorities," he said, noting that at the time, very few minority men received their wings. "It was very difficult, one of the most demanding things I've ever done in my life. ... The Vietnam War was still going on; we were at the tail end of the war, and the washout rate for AOCS was quite high," about 50 percent.

Over the next 18 years, he would log some 5,000 hours in the air, flying around 20 different aircraft - everything from the SH-2F helicopter to the F/A-18 Hornet, even a hot air balloon. He's credited with more than 200 shipboard landings, according to NASA, and spent several years as a test pilot.

"I enjoyed the Tomcat," Scott said. "That was probably my most favorite airplane, but I also enjoyed the F18 Hornet, which is still the Navy's primary flying fighter. I enjoyed that very much. It was a fun airplane to fly."

The SH-2F, which he flew off of destroyers, was also "some tremendous and very rewarding flying. A helicopter is a different kind of animal, probably the most challenging kind of flying that anybody can do."

Later in his career, the day approached when Scott would have to hang up his wings and take a desk job in Washington, D.C. But he wasn't ready. During a dinner party, he off-handedly told his wife and a friend that "I always thought I might like to be an astronaut." They both replied, "You really ought to apply." With some added encouragement from his commander, Scott began the long, two-year process of applying to NASA.

Out of about 3,000 people who applied for his 1992 year group, NASA chose 19.

It was a "life-changing experience," he said, explaining that the space shuttle was the most complicated aircraft he's ever flown. (While Scott was never officially the pilot, he was a member of the flight crew and did get to pilot the space shuttle.) "When people look at it, it looks like a big airplane. Don't be fooled by it. It took off like a rocket, and then you lived on it like a space shuttle, then you flew it home kind of like an airplane and turned around and reused it again. To do all of that, it's an incredibly complex vehicle."

His first launch came in 1996 aboard the space shuttle Endeavor, and he still remembers that lift off like it was yesterday:

"When the clock hits zero," Scott recalled, "the sonic rocket boosters will ignite and release and the vehicle jumps off the pad. When you see it on TV, it looks like it rises in slow motion. In reality, it jumps off the pad and kicks you in the back. It's shaking and vibrating. ... It rockets off across the horizon. ... It just continues to go faster and faster and faster, pressing you into your seat at about three times your body weight. ... We launched at night in the darkness, so about halfway through the assent, I could look out the front windows and see the day half of the Earth coming. ... We went from zero miles per hour to 17,500 in only eight and one half minutes. It is an incredible ride."

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During that first, nine-day mission, Scott donned his 350-pound spacesuit and set foot outside the safety of the shuttle. During his spacewalk, he tested the suit for the extreme, 100-plus-degrees-below-zero cold astronauts would face as they built the planned International Space Station, and tried out some of the tools that would be used in the construction.

He returned to space the following year aboard the space shuttle Columbia for 16 days, a mission that included two space walks. According to NASA, over the course of his career, he logged more than 10 million miles and nearly 400 orbits of Earth, spending 24-plus days in space, including some 19 hours' worth of spacewalks.

"The most awesome sight was the Earth and the larger solar system view from space," he told the Florida Institute of Technology online, adding that he hopes to see man build a permanent colony on the moon, followed by an expedition to Mars. "There are no words adequate enough to describe how beautiful the universe is, especially when viewed from outside the Earth's atmosphere. The Earth is incredibly bright and colorful. But, most of all, in this day and age with all of its conflicts, you can see no strife and struggle from space. It all looks peaceful."

Today, Scott works for the Florida Institute of Technology as a senior advisor to the president, and as a professor in both the school's College of Aeronautics and College of Music. He credits the military with his success. Joining the Navy, he said, was the "smartest move I ever made." He urges young people to seriously consider the armed forces as a career, both for their own futures and for our country's.

"I think it's important to be inclusive as a military for many, many reasons," Scott said. "First of all, America is always about equality and equal opportunity. If we're going to live up to what we profess to be, we're going to have to demonstrate it. More importantly ... we need to tap the best, and the best can come from all different communities. We never know who is going to discover a cure for cancer. ... We don't know who's going to make the next breakthrough in physics. ... We don't know where the next breakthrough is going to come from in medicine.

"If you had walked into my segregated classroom in the 1950s, nobody would have picked any of us. Nobody would have picked me and said, 'You are going to do something out of the ordinary. You are going to do something great.'"

Editor's Note: To learn more about the space program, read "John Glenn: An American Legend," "Moonwalk: 47th Anniversary of the Apollo 14 Lunar Landing" and "Goodbye to a Legend: Navy pilot Gene Cernan, last man on the moon, dies."