As a former astronaut and U.S. Navy captain, Winston Scott has seen a lot over his career. The Florida Tech emeritus faculty member has also seen the space program evolve over that time, as well. Last month, Victor J. Glover was announced as one of the eight crew members on the Artemis mission and is on track to become the first black astronaut to go to the moon.
We spoke with Scott about his time in the space program, the modern astronaut corps and how a simple phone call became a major inspiration.
What is something that you’ve experienced during your time as an astronaut that stood out to you?
Winston Scott: Well, everything about the experience, of course, is different. It’s unlike anything people can experience here on Earth. I think most people, when they think about flying in space, think about rocket taking off, or they think about people floating weightlessly, and maybe performing space walks, but they may not think about what a life-changing event it is. When you have flown in space, you’ve done something that very few people, in the history of the world, have had an opportunity to do. You have seen the Earth from a perspective that very few people in history have had an opportunity to see. When I talk about how the Earth looks, its beauty, clarity and peacefulness, the way it looks from up there as opposed to what we see in the newspapers and on TV, it really resonates with people. And that incredible perspective can really change your life and your perspective on life.
What were your thoughts when you first saw Earth from the space shuttle?
The first thought was how high we were and how fast we were moving. The next thought was just how small the Earth looked. From space you can see past the Earth’s boundaries. Even though you can’t see the entire planet from Earth orbit – that is, you don’t see a full globe the way you do from the moon – you can see the horizon, the curvature, and you see the atmosphere. And the atmosphere looks paper-thin. Then you see out past the Earth. You can see the stars and some other planets, constellations, and so on.
You really get an idea, a sense, of how small the Earth is and how fragile the Earth is. Earth is not some indestructible ball. You think that, hopefully, we as inhabitants will be able to work better together, to take care of the Earth, because it is our home. You want to see us all become good citizens of the Earth, and hopefully resolve our conflicts and begin to work more together.
During your time working and training to become an astronaut, who or what inspired you?
The people who were my mentors and role models then were senior naval officers who were on active duty at that time. There were some African-American aviators in the military of course, but there were none who were astronauts at the time, so I didn’t have any specific role models. The astronauts in general, and the naval aviators who were active duty at that time, were an inspiration to me. I do remember, however, when the first Black American astronauts were selected. The account was written up in Ebony magazine. The selectees were Col. Fred Gregory, Col. Guion Bluford and Dr. Ron McNair. I was on active duty as a young navy pilot. When I read about their selection by NASA, it was very exciting to me and very inspirational. I actually wrote Ebony a letter. I wrote (the writer) a letter and I said, ‘Hey, I read your article about the black astronauts. Can you help me get in touch with them?’ Well, of course Ebony would not give out their addresses.
But one morning, while attending post graduate school in Monterey, California, I was getting dressed for class. The telephone rang, I picked it up and the voice on the other end said, ‘Hey, is this Lieutenant Scott?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘This is Col. Fred Gregory.’ So my heart skipped a beat with the excitement. Col. Fred Gregory, the astronaut, had actually called me, at my house, and of course talked with me. He was very encouraging and very helpful. That was certainly an inspirational event by and inspirational person! Even then, the few people who were ahead of me were willing to reach back and encourage me. I now try to do the same for younger people coming along behind me.
To honor the people who gave you that inspiration and provided those moments for you, how do you try to pay it forward with the next generations?
I try to be present in their lives as a living and breathing example. I talk with them and encourage them and simply ‘make it real.’ I was out at FIT Aviation (recently) for Flight Fest, a flight festival. There were a lot of students there. After my presentation, I made it my business to stay around and have personal conversations with the students. I talked with them and shook hands, posed for photos and answered their questions. I believe a big, important part of inspiring others is to be as real as you can with them so that they see that achieving a goal is truly possible for them. It is indeed possible to accomplish your dreams, whatever they may be, to become an astronaut or anything else.
Diversity among astronauts and the space program – how have you seen that evolve?
Oh, diversity among astronauts is definitely evolving, beginning with the sheer numbers of African-American astronauts. I can tell you I was the number seven African-American astronaut because I could count them all up. And even though there are not very many people on Earth who are astronauts, the number of minorities and women is very small. In recent years I’ve watched more and more minorities, more and more women coming in to the astronaut corp. Also I see persons of different religious faiths being selected. As years go by, more diverse groups people apply, and more diverse groups are selected. We’re at the point where the old barriers no longer exist.
When the Mercury Seven astronauts were selected, they were all white men. The barriers, in place at that time, are for the most part gone. Now, NASA looks at qualifications first but also makes an effort at diversity…they specifically look at minorities at women and so on. They don’t lower the qualifications standards, but they do make a conscious effort to look at diverse groups of people and ensure that a diverse group of people are selected. And that effort goes beyond the astronaut corps. Remember, NASA is made up of many other professionals. For every person that flies in space, you have others who are engineers, administrative people, dietitians, doctors, teachers, security specialists, instructors and so on. You have a whole cadre of professionals on the ground, so to speak, promoting and supporting the program: people who make it possible for astronauts to fly in space. We have a large, diverse group of people in the support roles that are doing many very important jobs. The space industry, in general, is becoming more and more diverse, and it’s just great.
How did you end up meeting and getting to know Victor J. Glover?
I know Victor from a black naval aviators network, on the internet, through which we communicate. We also have a black astronauts network. It’s very informal. We get to connect periodically by a Zoom call. When Victor was getting ready to launch on his space station mission, we had several Zoom calls during which we talked. It’s a nice support system and a way of encouraging young people who are coming along behind old or retired people like me and other people are on active duty here, and it is just a good way of communicating and to encourage and to support and to help when needed.
What about Victor makes him a fit for this upcoming mission?
Well, everything about him makes him qualified and fit for the lunar mission. We are, kind of, a generation apart, but I know him and I know his background. He was in the U.S. Naval Aviator, a test pilot, his flight experience – it all makes him infinitely qualified. He also has space flight experience; he’s been to the International Space Station for a tour up there. I had no idea he would be on this Artemis crew or a subsequent one. That was kind held a little close by NASA. I figured he would be on one of the Artemis crews, but I didn’t know it would be this first one. But he has all the qualities and the traits that would allow him to be successful. He’s already there, so everything he does from now on is continuing to build on his past successes.
What does it mean to you to be able to have that experience of being an astronaut?
There are no words to adequately express it, but becoming an astronaut literally changes your life. Despite all the jobs I’ve held, after leaving active duty, being an astronaut and my space flight experience dominates my life; from day to day, every day. And it’s humbling in a way because people look up to astronauts. They want to hear what we have to say, they want to spend time with us.
And it places an obligation on us to try to be the best role models and best examples that we possibly can be. When people come to me, I really want to do or say things that enhance their lives; to help them in some way. Merely saying a supportive word or being supportive in some other way places a burden on us, and it’s a welcome burden. I’m very happy to accept that responsibility. Astronauts are mortal human beings same as everyone else, but people sometimes look at us as if we’re extraordinary. It’s awesome, it’s a blessing, but it also carries a responsibility. I’m very happy to shoulder that responsibility, to do the best I can to help other people as they journey into their future.