One Astronaut's Personal Journey in Space Program Among the seven-member crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery is Stephanie Wilson, only the second African-American woman to travel into space. NASA Mission Specialist Alvin Drew is a black astronaut on the waiting list for a space flight. He speaks with Ed Gordon about Discovery's mission and his personal journey through the space program.
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One Astronaut's Personal Journey in Space Program

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One Astronaut's Personal Journey in Space Program

One Astronaut's Personal Journey in Space Program

One Astronaut's Personal Journey in Space Program

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Among the seven-member crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery is Stephanie Wilson, only the second African-American woman to travel into space. NASA Mission Specialist Alvin Drew is a black astronaut on the waiting list for a space flight. He speaks with Ed Gordon about Discovery's mission and his personal journey through the space program.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

The space shuttle Discovery blasted into orbit earlier this week. Among its crew of seven is Stephanie Wilson, only the second African American women to travel into space. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA grooms many astronauts for its space flights, but not all get selected for that special mission.

Among those on the waiting list is astronaut Alvin Drew. I spoke to the Air Force colonel about Discovery's mission and his personal journey as an African American through America's space program.

Mr. ALVIN DREW, (Astronaut): Everybody from the administrator, down to the people who are cleaning the floors, are putting a rocket into space, everyday. And so, when you get to see one go, it's a culmination of everything that you've been working on.

GORDON: Let me ask you this: there's so much trepidation surrounding the shuttle launch this time, based on, obviously, the concern for safety. Talk to me about how the previous problems have changed the face, if you will, of how you see a shuttle launch inside? Certainly, it's changed the face in terms of how the public views it, but how do you as an astronaut view it?

Mr. DREW: Well, we've always been aware that this is a risky venture. I mean right now it's the foam, but there's lots of other problems out there that we work with all the time. When we interview to become astronauts - I did back in early winter of 2000 - then astronaut John Young, one of the Mercury astronauts, came into the program explained to us that going on any space shuttle mission was as hazardous as flying any 60 combat mission such as we flew over Hanoi or [unintelligible] in World War II.

Those dangers are out there. The foam was just one of them. So for us it really hasn't changed that perspective. What has changed, is the fact that we now realize that when we face those dangers, that the American public, now being aware of them, is extremely concerned about them.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, we're close to the same age. I'm three years older than you. But in thinking back, as I was preparing to do this interview, I thought back to elementary school and what we were taught in terms of the space race at the time, and what we could envision and expect in the future. Do you think that NASA has met that dream?

Mr. DREW: Well, I think you hit on the fact that success is not a one-time deal. It's not just a goal in your head. It's an ongoing process. And when we planted a flag on the moon with Apollo 11, we couldn't just declare success and be done with it, although the temptation was there back in the ‘70s. I think success is when you're proceeding towards it. What I see right now is that with current issues that we have with international space station, us putting together the constellation project to back to the moon and mars, means we're back on that process; we're back at doing the things that gave us those successes back in the late ‘60s.

GORDON: Do you think that you have to win back the public to some degree? There are those, as you now better than I, that questioned the kind of money that goes into the space race - no longer a race, since Russia is out of it. Talk me about convincing people that there is a need to spend this kind of money, still?

Mr. DREW: That's the big fallacy right now, is that people think that we're still spending the kind of money we spent back in the 1960s. Now at that point, if I remember correctly, we were spending somewhere close to 10 percent of our gross domestic products to go into the space program. Right now, we're spending a very small fraction of that on the space program, which is why we don't see ourselves being back on the moon for another 10 years, or maybe on mars for another 20 years - because the expenditure rates are much more modest.

We learned that the hard way, back in the late 1980s, when the first President Bush challenged NASA to go to Mars and they came back with a budget similar to the old Apollo program, and got told to go back to the drawing board and try again. America's not willing to lay out that kind of money. And you'll find out, if you look at NASA's budget now, that those budgets are very, very modest. We're doing a lot with a lot less money.

GORDON: You went to high school in Washington, D.C. I wonder if you could talk to me about, if there was - and we should note, you went to the United States Air Force Academy. Coming from Washington, D.C. - Chocolate City, as it's known - and then going into areas that are, quite frankly, still lily-white - how difficult was it for you, if at all, and did you suffer through any culture shock?

Mr. DREW: There was culture shock. Not so much that there was any racism or anything like that, but with just people with different perspectives, different points of views. Going from Washington, D.C. to Colorado Springs - for me, when I was 18, was like going to another planet. People had very widely different points of view from what I had grown up with. And it was the first time I had seen views that was so widely diverse from mine, and that were widely held, and where I had the minority opinion. At the time it was a tough transition, but I feel like it's a good thing that everyone should get a chance to go through that some time. I realized that there's more to their world than what they've grown up with.

GORDON: Has it been at all difficult to deal with the situation? You talk about not dealing with racism. But there is always the case where if you are, what I like to call the raisin in the rice, there are so few African Americans still in the space program. Sometimes one might look at you with a jaundiced eye and wonder if you are, quote, “up to snuff.” Have you experience that at all?

Mr. DREW: I can't say that I have noticed that all. What I do get is what I call the fishbowl effect. You talked about being a raisin in the rice. It's not necessarily good or bad, it's just there. I find that if you shine, you shine more brightly because you stand out, but if you stumble, you stumble more publicly because, again, you stand out. You lose any sense of anonymity.

GORDON: Talk to me about the space program. Was this something that you always wanted to do? Did you have dreams of becoming an astronaut?

Mr. DREW: Not until I was at least five years old. I think I was watching the initial Apollo 7 mission that really caught my fancy, that there was this space program, and then of course, watching the Apollo 11 mission really cemented for me that these guys are out here getting paid, paid to go walk on the moon. This looks like it beats working for a living. How do I do that?

GORDON: What about the idea of astronauts being heroes? Do you still see that as the case and a possibility? You know, I think of Guy Bluford, I think of Mae Jamison - you know, names that have become synonymous with success in our community, a beacon, if you will. Is there a want and a need to make sure that we continue that, I don't want to say hero worship, if you will, but the idea that astronauts had been looked at as a shining star, particularly in the black community.

Mr. DREW: Yes. Now, of course, me being here in the astronaut course, well, how can I be one of these people who are 11 or 12 feet tall, because that's how I saw them when I grew up. So these people like me, they get up and put their pants on one leg at a time. But when I go to schools, and I do that pretty frequently, the kids especially in the African American community, you command their attention. They stop and settle down when I talk. I don't see what I'm saying as being that profound, but the fact is is that they still look up to the fact that I'm an astronaut and astronauts are important to them.

So I take that into consideration of what I do, how I conduct myself, that people are looking to me as a role model. People are looking to me as how they might want to grow up and go do things. So I take that into account. It's still very important out there. It actually came as one of the big surprises to me after I got here that it was that way.

GORDON: Let me take you back to where I started, and that is the idea of it being dangerous when we take these missions. One automatically thinks of Ron McNair and the 86 Challenger accident, as a huge loss, again to the African American community - not slighting any of the other astronauts. But again, as you say, they are so few and far between, they become heroic figures. How often does that stay with you on a day-to-day basis. I would think that that has to be in the fore of your mind, not in a frightening sense, but in a sense of making sure that you dot all your I's and cross all the T's.

Mr. DREW: We do. You don't scoff at hazards. But many of us, especially those that come from military backgrounds, see hazardous duty as part of our daily routine.

And one of the big shocks, I think, that came to us following the Columbia accident, was that it's more than just that. When you involve - those of us have flown have all lost friends in squadrons to aircraft mishaps. And you know, it's - you mourn, you bury your friends, and you move ahead.

To see the sense of national, you know, shock and sorrow after the Columbia mishap, I realized that we need to be extra careful because it's not just us and our families that are affected by this. We do affect an entire nation.

So we really need to be even more careful than we normally are because it is a bigger scope than normal force.

GORDON: All right. We should note that you're a colonel in the United States Air Force and with NASA you're a mission specialist. What's your dream? What do you want to do with NASA in the future?

Mr. DREW: Ultimately I'd like to see - I'd like to have a positive influence on our efforts to get out to the moon and to Mars. I can participate in the current space program and, you know, that helps me gain the experience and sort of have some valuable insights.

But I'd really like to see somebody set foot on Mars some day and have the satisfaction of knowing that I helped them get there and back safely.

GORDON: And talk to me, if you would, about that young African-American child who may be dreaming of space, as you did at five. Talk to me about what they need to know and look for, and shoot for, in order to become an astronaut.

Mr. DREW: First and foremost they need to really understand that it's possible. Sometimes it seems like it's extremely improbable, or that the odds are just insurmountable. And they're not. It does take a lot of hard work. It takes a lot of concentration and focus, a lot of being able to get around and be the distractions in life to get here.

But the main thing is to know, that when you feel like giving up, or it seems like it's just too distant a goal, that it's not, you know. Just to keep trucking out, putting one foot in front of the other towards it, until you get there.

GORDON: And what about for yourself, and going up?

Mr. DREW: We're looking at that closely right now. Of course, our space shuttle program will come to an end in 2010, right now. And the way it stands right now, it's probably about the exact number of seats left. We'll get most everybody in my class.

There's a good chance if we curtail the program that those in our class won't get to fly. It's a chance you take. It's - we know like the hazards that come with flying in space, there's always a chance that you won't get to fly in space.

Again, it's not just the destination, it's the journey that's a big part of it.

GORDON: So let me ask you, as I would ask an athlete who had a great career, but didn't win a championship ring: If you don't get up, will it be a disappointment? Will it be one of those things, that for some athletes, haunts them unto the end?

Mr. DREW: I've given it a lot of thought over the past years, and I've kind of come to the conclusion, now, that it's not. It's the fact that I've got to be here. I've got to be part of this space program. I've trained and done everything that I possibly can do. That gives me a sense of satisfaction right there.

And of course it would be great to go like, go into space and like you said, get that championship ring. But I can't see me being bitter about not getting that opportunity.

GORDON: Well, Alvin Drew, we hope you get that opportunity and certainly would be watching with pride, if in fact you do. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. DREW: Sure, thank you.

GORDON: Alvin Drew is a colonel with the U.S. Air Force, and a NASA Mission Specialist.

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