Kwatsi Alibaruho, First Black NASA Flight Director

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Ed Gordon talks with Kwatsi Alibaruho, the first African American to lead NASA's Mission Control as a flight director for the International Space Station.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Engineering spaceflight takes extraordinary knowledge and years of experience. Since NASA started its space program more than four decades ago, only 58 men and women have directed human spaceflight missions. Kwatsi Alibaruho is the first African-American to receive that honor. After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994, he went directly to NASA. He recently was chosen to lead Mission Control as an International Space Station flight director. And although Alibaruho has been fascinated with outer space since childhood, he's glad his new job keeps him on the ground.

Mr. KWATSI ALIBARUHO: I actually have never had a desire to be an astronaut. What I found when I came to work at NASA was that the job of a flight controller, of mission operations, which is essentially to kind of help pave the way for the astronauts to do what they do, that that was just very exciting to me. The astronauts, of course, have a very challenging and fascinating job but a lot of people who work in mission control basically helping to make the trip happen is the reward for them.

ED GORDON, host:

It must have been an interesting life to be placed in situations where there were not a lot of African-Americans. Have you, throughout this career, felt like, to some degree, an outsider, or was it the idea that you were, and could, and still do, represent a people that, heretofore, have not been able to break into these fields?

Mr. ALIBARUHO: As I was growing up, going through school and the early phases of my career, very much did feel like an outsider. There certainly are a very small number of African-Americans in these highly technical fields, at least that we hear about and that we see. For me, I have to give the credit largely, and almost exclusively, to my parents, who told me, from the time I was young enough to understand, that because I was an African-American, that was not something to--that I should be pitied for, or that I should receive special treatment, but I was filled with a great sense of discipline that there was an expectation that I would work as hard as I needed to work to achieve what it is I wanted in life. And so it really--going through college, I felt like I was fighting a bit of an uphill battle. But to be very fair, when I put forth the effort, I did feel like I got a lot of support from key people--teachers and mentors, of all ethnicities.

GORDON: Do you feel the need or have a want to try to bring minorities into the field of math and science?

Mr. ALIBARUHO: I really do. There are a number of minorities who simply haven't had the opportunity or may not be in areas where they're receiving the kind of foundation that they need in the math and sciences to really distinguish themselves and really achieve themselves. I myself feel a very strong burden to serve as that type of mentor, particularly now that I'm reaching the phase of my career where I'm able to have an ever-widening circle of influence. I really would like to help people, yes.

GORDON: All too often, we hear of the pressure, unfortunately, for many young African-Americans from peers who associate being bright and looking toward education as acting, quote, "white." Did you find yourself in that situation or did you in fact have peers who competed with you and pushed you toward educational excellence?

Mr. ALIBARUHO: In truth, I found both. Growing up, I had been told many, many times that I'm trying to be white. On the flip side, there were also individuals in my peer group who were very instrumental in encouraging me to be all that I can be and to do everything that I do with excellence.

GORDON: And, finally, what can we look to for the future in terms of what you will be doing, some of the things that you may be working on? I know NASA's always looking and working at projects that will, in fact, bring new light and technology to the United States.

Mr. ALIBARUHO: The very next thing that we have to really focus on is completion of the assembly of the International Space Station. Basically, from there, we'll be looking to go back to the moon to help us develop the technologies that we'll need, the techniques that we'll need, and the experience that we'll need, to go further. I think that's tremendously exciting.

GORDON: Exciting, indeed, and though we've come a long way, by virtue of you sitting in this position, we haven't come so far that it isn't still unique, and, that being said, we are very proud to see brothers like you in positions like that. Kwatsi Alibaruho, thank you so much for joining us. Greatly appreciate it.

Mr. ALIBARUHO: Thank you so much for your time.

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