No. 2 at NASA speaks of overcoming the odds

Ex-astronaut recounts drive to succeed at BWI's Black History Month talk

The Loss Of Columbia

February 06, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

After waking up Saturday morning to the space shuttle Columbia breaking apart on national television, the events staff at Baltimore-Washington International Airport figured they'd have to find a new speaker for their annual Black History Month event.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's deputy administrator, Frederick D. Gregory, would surely be too busy, too broken up to tell a crowd of strangers about his life spent overcoming the obstacles that history had placed in his way. He would be shuttling between Houston and Washington, consoling the grieving families and supervising an investigation into what went wrong aboard the ill-fated mission.

The staff would understand. How could they not?

But Gregory - the agency's second-in-command and the first African-American to command a space shuttle - had no intention of canceling. For the 1958 graduate of Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C., the event seemed to be part of his personal mission - to show young people, especially black children who grow up poor, that everyone can find opportunities to soar.

In a crowd of more than 200 that included airport administrators, news reporters and dignitaries, he singled out three students from his alma mater.

"I want to watch you blast off into space," the 62-year-old said. "You don't have to tell me where you're going, just tell me about it when you get back."

Gregory's journey from a two-story brick house in Southeast Washington to the No. 2 post at NASA is about breaking barriers and soaring higher than the generation before thought possible.

The nephew of pioneering heart surgeon and blood-bank founder Charles Drew, Gregory had dreamed of flying since he was a boy. By age 5, he was sitting in the cockpit of a family friend's plane, ready for his first flight - only to taxi around the runway because his worried mother forbade the pilot from taking off.

Gregory set his sights on attending the Air Force Academy, and he became the only black member of the Class of 1964. He served 30 years in the Air Force, logging several missions as a fighter pilot and combat rescue pilot.

In 1978, he was selected from a pool of 8,000 applicants to become an astronaut for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He was the third black man to be sent into space: the first two were Guion S. Bluford Jr., who flew aboard Challenger and Discovery, and Ronald McNair, who died in the Challenger disaster of 1986.

Shortly after NASA called, Gregory also got a call about joining the Tuskegee Airmen, the historic group of elite black aviators who helped end segregation in the military. The airmen were hoping that space travel crews, too, would become integrated.

Gregory, the product of segregated schools, said he had never heard of the airmen. But he soon remembered it was the Tuskegee Airmen who visited his house often as a child. His father, Francis, had once taught at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Gregory signed up immediately and has been active since.

"I feel as though I'm part of the reason for his success. The NASA guys always looked at us as the guys who opened the doors for them," said Tuskegee Second Lt. Bill Broadwater, a retired Federal Aviation Administration division chief who flew B-25 bombers during World War II.

NASA still has just a handful of black astronauts. But Gregory said Americans need only look at the Columbia crew to see the country's diversity reflected in the space program. The crew included Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli air force; Kalpana Chawla, a native of India and an engineer; and Michael Anderson, a black astronaut.

Gregory said he was particularly touched when the whole crew ran over to Chawla after she noticed the Earth and sunset reflecting in her eye during orbit. He said it reminded him of one of his missions, when the astronauts from such diverse places as Cleveland and Shanghai, China, began to identify "home" as all of Earth.

Weightlessness and a perfect sky are amazing, Gregory said, but so is the family that the astronauts become while in orbit.

"When we look at the astronauts of Columbia, we celebrate the rich diversity of race, religion and national diversity they represented," Gregory said, his voice quivering. "This is the profound, pure unity that Martin Luther King prayed for. This is the unity Columbia achieved."

Gregory lives in Annapolis with his wife of 39 years, Barbara Archer. The couple have two grown children.

Yesterday, he called the Columbia astronauts "fallen heroes" and "my friends." He told of payload commander Anderson's hopes that his experiments would lead to new treatments for prostate cancer and of his own belief that space exploration must continue despite the tragedy.

"We can and we must learn from our setbacks and move forward," Gregory said, adding that one day space travel will become so routine that families will discuss trips to Mars at the dinner table.

Gregory's message resonated with Derwin Fields and Ibrahim Matthews, college-bound seniors at Anacostia High School.

"We students have all the opportunities we can dream of," said Fields, an aspiring mechanical engineer. "Mr. Gregory - he had a lot of things holding him back, and he still achieved."

And though Matthews is focusing on a career in computer science, Gregory's speech made him think twice about the cosmos.

"I'll do one trip, just to see how it feels," the tall, lean teen-ager said as he twisted his braids. "I bet it's peaceful up there, which you don't get being in the ghetto."

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