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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of George Carruthers by David DeVorkin on 1992 August 18,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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George Carruthers was born 1939 in Cincinnati, Ohio; child of George Arthur Carruthers and Sophia Singley Carruthers; father an engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base; interest in science from reading science fiction; built his own telescope while in junior high school; very little discrimination in elementary or junior high school even though he was one of few African Americans; moved to Chicago for high school; access to Adler Planetarium and built more telescopes; read about rocket launches and Herb Frieman; read The Viking Rocket Story by Milton Rosen; undergraduate University of Illinois 1957-61; Ph.D. University of Illinois 1964; "An Experimental Investigation on Atomic Nitrogen Recombination;" while in graduate school spent a summer at AerJet in California; exposure to engineers and "big science;" post-doctorate at E. O. Hurlburt Center for Space Research at Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), in unit headed by Talbot Chubb; dichotomy between scientists and engineers; little discrimination; small science vs. big science; molecular hydrogen; concern with science education and Project SMART; cameras and sensors on rockets; spectrography; electronographic technology; joint proposal with Thorton Page; hired permanently at NRL; charge-coupled device (CCD) technology; Apollo 16; geocorona camera.
Dr. Carruthers, what I hope to do here today is start to sketch out a portrait of an achiever like you that might help others better appreciate how careers in technical areas, in scientific areas, are possible, can be approached. We know that this is in context of your interest to help black youth gain some identification with you and to help them find ways to walk in the ways that you've walked, in your path, as a role model. I would like to find a way to help you in this, to help others feel what it's like to have life goals, career goals like you have felt them in your career. So if it's all right with you, what I would like to do is start out talking first about Project SMART. What is it? Who started it, and why now, as opposed to some other time in history in your career or in time, generally? So let's start out with what is Project SMART?
Project SMART was started in 1986, I believe. First of all, I should state that I was not involved in the formation of SMART. I was asked to join it at a relatively late stage. But in 1986, Congressman Mervyn [M.] Dymally suggested the formation of SMART as a group to advise on science and technology issues of importance to the black community. He was at the time the chairman of the National Black Leadership Roundtable. I don't know exactly who was involved in SMART at the beginning, in 1986, but the person who asked me to become involved in SMART is the present president of SMART, Valerie Thomas, who works at the National Space Science Data Center in Goddard Space Flight Center.
When did you enter?
That was about the middle of 1988 that I became involved. At the time they were planning their first national SMART conference, which took place in February of 1989.
What has been your participation in SMART?
Actually, a variety of roles. At the beginning, we were trying to decide exactly on a plan of action for the next ten years, our so-called ten-year plan. The overall objective of SMART is to get African Americans involved in science and technology careers and also to become technologically literate, even if they don't choose careers in science and technology. It's not a unique goal because many other groups have very similar goals, and some of those that Valerie Thomas and myself are involved in, and have been for many years, have very similar goals, which is the National Technical Association, which I've been a member of since the early 1980s. Valerie Thomas is a past president of that association, as well.
Had you been asked to join these types of groups before you were approached for science?
Yes. The National Technical Association I've been a member of since the early 1980s, and there are some other groups that I'm a member of, such as the National Society of Black Physicists, which I've been a member of for several years. The unique feature of SMART is not that its goals and objectives are different from these other groups, but it seeks to coordinate the activities of these other groups, and the ten-year plan which was developed in part was an attempt to coordinate the activities of these separate groups that had similar goals. The 1989 conference that I spoke about had as its objective to get people to speak about the programs of these individual organizations so that we could identify gaps where no one was doing anything and also to identify areas where we could have different groups collaborate so as to achieve the goals more efficiently.
Do you feel that since 1988, anyway, Project SMART has been moving in a positive direction toward these goals?
I believe so. I guess the only disappointment that we have had is that after the 1989 conference there seemed to be a loss of interest on the part of many of the participants up through the first conference, but most of the people who were really involved in it from the beginning are still working with us. I think that one of the problems is that like in the case of any totally volunteer organization, since no one gets paid for participating in these kinds of activities, it's difficult to get them to do things according to a schedule. When you do things like running a conference, it's very labor-intensive and funding-intensive, and since we have no outside funding at all right now, it's strictly a volunteer group, we found it difficult to have the same kind of conference each year that we had expected to have. We did have one this last February, and we're planning another one for the end of January 1993. But these are somewhat smaller conferences than our very first one.
Just as an aside question, where is the conference planned for January '93?
At the Blackburn Center at Howard University. We're presently working on an announcement, call for papers. I might also mention that one thing that was different about our last conference in January of '92 and our upcoming conference, as compared to our first conference, is that in addition to having speakers, we have workshops specifically directed to students and their teachers, and we have essentially three-day sessions. We have the first day for elementary school students, the second day for junior and senior high school students and teachers, in which we have hands-on workshops both of those days. And then only the third day, which is on a Saturday, do we actually have a formal set of lectures like at a normal professional conference, because we feel that one of the things that we can do that really is important is to get students interested in science at an early age.
At this point, what do you feel it takes to get students interested? And does it take anything different to get an African American student interested as opposed to a white child?
To answer the latter question first, I don't think there is anything different in nature. There may be some difference in the degree because of environment and background. Certainly I don't think there is anything inherent to race that's involved. It's just that most of the African American students come from less well-to-do backgrounds, inner city backgrounds, and aren't exposed to science and technology to the degree that some of the other students are. But the other question about how we get them interested is something that we're really trying to find out and develop. One of the things that most people agree on is just giving them lectures is not really very effective. In other words, if you say that you're going to give a lecture on space science, that's too much like what they already get in school, so it's not going to make a lasting impression on them or necessarily attract them to the field. So what we have been trying to do is give them hands-on activities, use videos and demonstrations that get across information in a way that's more like entertainment, because certainly students are interested in seeing science fiction movies on television, they like to see "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" and "Battlestar Gallactica." So what we're trying to do is cast real science in a way that's as attractive to them as science fiction is.
Is there a particular element in the science fiction that you have found attracts their attention, that you wish to emulate with science content?
It's just that it has more pictorial content. It shows more action types of things, and it's something that students can relate to better than someone writing some equations on the blackboard or just giving them a lecture without anything other than word vu-graphs.
What is the value that you've found so far, of role models?
It's hard for me to say, because I don't get very much feedback, especially from the younger students, but some of the older students that I've been in contact with, especially at the college level, have been enthusiastic. In fact, some of them have written me letters expressing gratitude to me for giving them information on various science and technology subjects. I should also add that one way in which I interact with students, aside from Project SMART, is through the National Technical Association, because I'm the editor of their journal which comes out four times a year. We use that journal to get to students not only scientific and technical information, but career profiles and biographical sketches of prominent African American scientists and engineers. We distribute that to senior high schools and to colleges.
But in your mind, what is the nature of an ideal role model?
The role model is somebody who has been successful in his or her field of science or technology, but at the same time is willing to talk to students and give them advice and direction in pursuing career goals similar to their own.
Certainly advice and direction are important. Have you found also that revealing something of yourself, how you got interested in the field, what obstacles you had to overcome, are these also important elements that students have to know in order to identify, let's say, with a role model?
Yes, I think that's true. Certainly students are interested in knowing how I got to where I am at the present time. Of course, there are some changes with time. For example, many of the obstacles that African Americans faced in the fifties and sixties are no longer obstacles now, although the obstacles are not totally absent. Certainly if we give examples of more difficult times in the past and point out that they actually have it easier now, then maybe that would give them some incentive to do better.
So then you would agree that what we're trying to do, at least in the video that we're going to develop, makes some sense in trying to compare the experiences of African American in the 1930s who wanted to fly, and what their obstacles were, to what your experiences were entering a science and technology area in the fifties and sixties, to what the astronaut Jameson may have experienced in her career. This is sort of a generational thing that we're trying to do.
Good. For me, that's a very good introduction because it helps me structure the interview. What I'd like to do now is turn to your life, understanding that we want to be able to create material that might be helpful in establishing what you experienced in your life growing up, not only for the purposes of historical documentation, but for the program. I'd like to start with your early life and simply move through it, asking you specific questions about it. I know you were born in 1939 in Cincinnati, Ohio. What I'd like to know is who your father and mother were, what their training was, and general family background.
My father was George Archer Carruthers, and he was a general engineer by training. He went to the University of Illinois, like I did. In fact, that's probably part of the reason why I went to the University of Illinois. I don't remember a whole lot about what kind of work that he did, but the earliest that I can remember was that in 1947 we moved from Cincinnati to a farm near Milford, Ohio, which is about fifteen miles from downtown Cincinnati. At that time it was really out in the boondocks, you might say. So from the time I was about seven till I was twelve, we lived in the country, so to speak, in rural surroundings.
Who did your father work for?
He worked for the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, so he had to commute quite a bit.
That's quite a distance. Why did you stay in the Cincinnati area if he worked over in Dayton?
Actually, I think that he changed jobs after we moved to the country. He was originally working in Cincinnati. I don't remember exactly when he changed jobs. It might have been as late as two or three years after that.
Tell me a little bit about your mother, her name and what she was like, what her training was.
My mother's maiden name was Sophia Singley. Both my father and mother were from Chicago originally, and they moved to Cincinnati, I guess just before I was born. I don't really remember what her background was in terms of the occupational specialty that she studied in school. It wasn't science or engineering, but I don't remember exactly what it was.
Let me go a little farther back in your family. Your father had an advanced degree?
No, just a bachelor's.
Was he the first in your family to go to college, to your knowledge?
No. Well, I don't really know. My uncle actually was about three years older than my father, and he had a Ph.D. degree, but it was in non-technical field. I think it was romance languages or something like that.
What was his full name?
Benjamin. I don't remember what his middle name was. Benjamin Carruthers.
Do you know where he taught, or did he teach?
He did teach at Howard University, I believe, for a few years, and then he moved to New York. Most of his life he lived in New York.
So you come from a family background that's well educated and professional Do you recall growing up in Cincinnati in a community that was generally professional, white collar?
I don't remember in Cincinnati, but in Milford it was not really white collar; it was mostly farm. I don't recall interacting with anyone who was technically oriented while we lived there.
Were you actually on a farm there?
Did you have farm-type chores?
Yes, we did. Of course, that was not a major occupation. I think that my father really wanted to be out in the country. It wasn't that the farm was a source of income or anything like that.
Do you have brothers and sisters?
I have two brothers and one sister. They're all younger.
So you're the oldest.
Could you give me their names, relative ages, and what they're doing today?
The second in line after me was Anthony Carruthers, and he lives in Chicago. He's a machinist. The third one in line was Gerald Carruthers, and he's in Huntsville, Alabama. I'm not sure what kind of job he has right now. He was probably the only other one besides myself who had a really great interest in science and technology, and actually he's the only other one besides myself with a college degree. But he was working more as a technician than as an engineer or scientist.
Then your sister?
Barbara Carruthers. She works at the post office. She lives in Chicago also.
What was family life like for you in Milford?
I'm trying to remember now. It was certainly different from when we lived in the city. I guess that's later when we moved back to Chicago. But living in the country was quite different in the sense that you didn't have nearly the amount of contact with the outside world that you do in a big city. The school library was probably the only source of information that I had access to other than whatever books my father had. My interest in astronomy first came about by chance. Actually, maybe we're not to that stage yet.
But I guess my interest in science and technology came about first through science fiction. When I was about eight or nine years old, I got a Buck Rogers comic book from my grandmother, and that was, of course, long before there was any such thing as a space program. Since it was science fiction, nobody took space flight seriously in those days, back in the late forties, early fifties. But then I came across a book on astronomy that my father had. Actually it was not an astronomy book per se, but it was an encyclopedia that had a section on astronomy. The combination of that plus the science fiction magazines really sparked my interest. My father's background was in civil engineering and general engineering, so to a large extent he served as a role model in terms of giving me advice on studying math and science, although the particular area of astronomy and space flight was not really his area. Needless to say, most of the teachers and students in school were not supportive of me in that type of thing.
Were they accepting of you generally, as a black youth in what must have been essentially a white school?
I don't recall that there was a whole lot of overt discrimination. It's certainly true that there were only a handful of black students among those at the school, and every once in a while I do remember that some of the kids would give me a hard time, but I don't recall any instances of discrimination on the part of the teacher or the principal or anything like that.
What was "a hard time" in your elementary school?
Well, every once in a while they would make racial comments and things like that, and pick fights and things like that, but there wasn't a whole lot of that that I recall, at least not specifically racial in nature.
How did you deal with it?
I don't recall that it was a real problem. Actually, there was a lot more of it in Chicago than out in the country. Actually, I'm getting ahead of the story, because we moved back to Chicago when I was about twelve.
I see. So you really barely got to something like junior high school in Milford.
Right. I left there when I was in the middle of eighth grade.
Let's talk about your early schooling in Milford and then move to Chicago. Were there any teachers or adults who served as role models in science?
Not that I can recall. In fact, one thing that I do recall was that a lot of both teachers and students thought my interest in astronomy was strange.
Is there anything else to talk about during Milford, or should we move to Chicago?
I guess among the things that I did in Milford was to build my own telescope. I saw advertisements in magazines that you could buy lenses and stuff to make telescopes, the same sorts of things that Edmund Scientific has done in recent years. I don't think it was Edmund Scientific, but it was the same kinds of companies that were selling parts to make telescopes.
Could it have been Jaegers? Does that ring a bell?
I know that I've dealt with Jaegers in the years since then, but I don't think it was that in Milford.
What magazines did you read that you found these ads in?
I guess it must have been things like Scientific American. I don't really remember specifically, because out in the country I didn't really have a whole lot of access to publications. In fact, that was the thing that really struck me the most when I went to Chicago, was that I had much greater access to libraries and things like that than I did in the country.
Was your father economically secure enough so that you could buy books or magazines or telescope parts at this time?
I wouldn't say that we were — we certainly weren't high income, but I don't think that we were below average by any means relative to the neighbors. I did have money to buy parts, but not to buy something as expensive as a completely assembled telescope or anything like that.
What type of telescope did you actually build?
The first one I made was just a simple refractor which had an objective lens and an eyepiece lens.
How did you learn how to build it?
They gave instructions in the kit on how to do it.
So it was a kit.
Yes, but there were parts that I had to get myself. They made suggestions about what to use, but they didn't provide anything other than the lenses.
Do you remember building anything else in Milford or just being a handyman around the house? Did you build a crystal radio, for instance, or fix faucets?
I don't remember anything like that in those days.
Were you interested in radio at all?
To some extent, but I don't think I ever got involved in electronics as a hands-on activity.
When you built the telescope, what did you do with it?
I went out and looked at the stars, the moon, and the planets and that sort of thing. Of course, it was a very crude telescope. I didn't have a mounting for it or anything like that, so it was not something that anybody would be interested in these days.
Was it just handheld, then?
Just handheld. Relatively low power.
If this was your first telescope, when did you build your second one?
It wasn't until I moved to Chicago that I started to build anything bigger than that, because then I had access to the Adler Planetarium, and they had telescope-making classes and things like that.
Wonderful. We'll get to that in a minute. Why did your father move the family to Chicago?
Actually, the story about that is that he didn't. My father passed away when I was twelve, and my mother moved the family to Chicago.
Was it natural death?
Yes, it was sudden, but it was natural.
How did you recover from that, and the family?
Well, we moved to Chicago and stayed with our other relatives, my aunt and my grandmother, for several years until we got well situated enough that we could have a house of our own. So that was, like I say, in the middle of the eighth grade, so I did just the last semester of the eighth grade in Chicago before going on to high school.
Did your mother work as a result of this? Did she have to go to work?
What was her employment? What did she do?
I believe she worked in some stores. I don't remember exactly what kind of occupation she had. I remember she had at least one or two different jobs in stores, and the final job that she had, which was her main occupation until she retired, was in the post office, the Chicago post office.
Where she was what?
You would certainly say this must have been a very traumatic experience in your life.
Do you recall having any goals in life at the time of your dad's death that changed you or that changed themselves?
I don't think that anything changed in terms of my career goals, because the interest in astronomy was there before that happened, and I did seek a career of being in astronomy at that time. My father was sort of pressuring me to go into engineering, and I guess that's part of the reason why my academic background is a little unique in that I have almost equal amounts of involvement in both science and engineering, except that I was in aerospace engineering rather than civil engineering. That's the only difference between what I pursued and what my father pursued. But the interest in astronomy was always there from the time I was nine years old.
Going back to your father just for a second, if he worked at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, was it aerospace-related, what he did?
No, it was civil engineering-related, but I don't remember exactly what it was.
Did he come home and talk about aircraft, balloons, that sort of thing?
Not that I recall.
So you moved to Chicago and went to high school. What high school did you go to in Chicago?
It was Englewood High School.
You went there approximately which years?
'53 to '57.
Let's talk about your high school. Are there experiences, teachers, friends that you made that you feel are important in your life as mentors, role models, colleagues?
There were several teachers that I could say were significant in terms of guiding me. They were all science teachers. Among the things that I did in high school was participate in science fairs. Actually, I think there were three different years that I won prizes in the science fair.
What were your projects?
I think one year I had something on a nuclear-powered airplane, and one year I had a physics project on generation and transmission of electricity, and I think the very first year that I was there I actually had a telescope, one that I had built at the Adler Planetarium.
So that would be '53-'54. Let me back up to your first telescope and then we'll talk about the Adler experience. I am curious that your three projects, of the three, one was a telescope, the other two were in power engineering, electricity, that sort of thing. Very interesting. When you looked at the stars with your first telescope, was that a sense of achievement for you? Did it make you more interested in the stars or in building better telescopes?
I would say both to a large degree, because there were a lot of deficiencies of that first telescope. At the time I didn't have the resources to go to the next stage of building something better. It wasn't until we moved to Chicago that I was able to do that.
You were aware of the deficiencies?
Let's say we've now moved you to Chicago. What part of Chicago was Englewood High School?
It was on the south side of Chicago.
Is it farther south than Hyde Park, for instance?
It's about the same latitude, but further west.
Getting to Adler, I know I was doing it just earlier this summer, I was taking the Jeffrey 6 bus or something like that. But was it easy to get to the Adler? How did you get involved with the Adler? Because it was quite a distance physically.
It was convenient, because the elevated train went directly there from the south side, because I used to take the 63rd Street "L," as they called it, and it was a straight line down to downtown Chicago. So in that respect it was very convenient, even though it was a fair distance. I don't remember where I first heard about it, but the one thing that I was involved in, they had an astronomy club there where you could make your own telescopes, and in addition to seeing the planetarium shows themselves, I had the opportunity to talk to some of the astronomers there, who you might say were mentors in some respect.
Do you remember any of their names?
I remember a Dr. Shatzel who was there. I don't remember any of the other names. Certainly the planetarium was a quantum jump, or magnitude jump over anything that I had been exposed to in Milford, so that caused my interest to go up another order of magnitude, you might say. It would be like if I went to the Air and Space Museum for the first time after moving from the country. But there was one thing that I did find that was sort of a negative aspect of that. I did forget to mention one thing about my experience in Milford that is relevant, and that is that my interest in space flight was enhanced because there was a series of articles in Collier's magazine by Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley and a few others — I guess it was '53 or so, '51, somewhere around early1950s — in which they had this von Braun space station, the doughnut-shaped thing, that was portrayed for the first time in Collier's magazine and also Willy Ley's articles about trips to Mars and the moon and things like that. All of that came out in the early 1950s, and that sort of shifted my interest once again to the space flight area, because up to that point I had only science fiction to go on. There was no factual information on space flight at all up to that point. So when we moved to Chicago, which was shortly after that, one of the things that I encountered at the Adler Planetarium was that when I talked about space flight, they told me that was nonsense, because that was before any space flight mission had ever taken place. One of the things that Fred Whipple had espoused in one of these early Collier's magazine articles was the advantages of doing astronomy from space. That, being in the 1950s, was not something that was well known even among astronomers, the advantages of going out into space. Most of the astronomers that I talked to at the planetarium thought that was nonsense, that astronomy is done with ground-based telescopes, and you shouldn't waste your time thinking about going out into space. So there was sort of a dichotomy there between the science and the engineering, in that I had parallel interests in space flight, rocket engineering, and things like that, and in astronomy, and the people that I looked to as role models or mentors or whatever, there was no overlap among them, in that the people who were interested in astronomy weren't interested in space flight and vice versa.
You can say you were interested in both.
Yes. When I went to the University of Illinois for the first time, I joined the astronomy club there, but one thing that did happen the very first semester that I was there was the launch of Sputnik I. One of the things that they did right away was to set up a moon watch group there to look for the satellite as it passed overhead. But even so, there was still not much overlap between the astronomers and the aerospace engineers.
This was which campus of the University of Illinois?
Champaign-Urbana. I started there in the fall of '57, and Sputnik was launched in October '57.
Was McVittie there?
Yes, he was. In fact, I had him for some courses.
We could talk about that a little later. Back in your high school days or in the Adler days, even, who were your primary mentors or role models, and could you give me a description of the one maybe that you have the strongest feelings about?
The science teachers that I worked with were supportive of what I was interested in, but I really wouldn't call them role models in the sense that they were the ones who got me interested in the first place. In fact, in some cases I guess you might say that I was ahead of them in the sense that what I was doing was above and beyond what the class activities and things were, and to some extent they would discourage me from doing things like experimentation in the chemistry lab, for example, which might be hazardous, things that I came up with on my own which were outside of the normal activities. But in terms of science fair projects and things like that, they were supportive of me.
Describe a little more, then, your first science fair project, the telescope. Was it a reflector?
Yes, it was. It was one that I'd built using the mirror that I'd ground and polished at the Adler Planetarium.
Was this part of their telescope-making class there?
I believe that's the case. I'm not sure it was a telescope-making class in the sense of building the complete telescope. It was only the grinding and polishing of the mirrors. All the other parts we had to come up with on our own if we wanted to have a telescope.
Did you have to pay for that course at the Adler? Where did you get the money?
It wasn't really a course in the true sense of the word; it was basically an opportunity to do this on your own. But we had, of course, to buy our own materials and tools and things like that. For that reason, because of having to buy the materials, I started out relatively small with a four-and-a-quarter-inch telescope. Some of the other guys were making six-inch and eight-inch telescopes.
How did they treat you? Were you accepted as a member of the telescope-making group?
I would say so, yes. I certainly don't recall any conflicts or any negative experiences there.
Were there people who would help you learn how to grind the mirror, how to test it?
Yes, there were people who did that.
Do you remember any of their names and how they helped you?
No, that's too far back in history. I really don't remember.
How did you go about making the rest of the telescope?
I guess what I did was I looked at some pictures in Sky and Telescope magazine and places like that to give examples of how people built telescopes, and compared with what I actually had available. What I essentially came up with was a square tube made of wood, because that was what I had access to, and I didn't really have a very good mounting for it, but it was good enough that I could look at planets with it. In fact, I even remember looking at Uranus once. You could tell it was a disk, even though it didn't have any details on it. I used to show the kids in the neighborhood what Jupiter looked like and Saturn and things like that.
How did that make you feel, being able to do that?
Oh, I thought it was pretty interesting. Of course, I would have liked to have had a better telescope, but I was limited in what I could do at that time.
Was the mounting made out of pipe fittings, for example?
I believe that was what I did. It was probably copied out of something in Sky and Telescope, although I don't really remember where I got the idea for it.
What about the kids that you showed astronomical objects to? Do you know if any of them were inspired to go into science?
I doubt that —
You said that you don't think that you inspired any.
No. I remember some of them were impressed by what they saw, but there weren't a whole lot of people who were that interested in it. There was one occasion that I recall which involved an uncle of mine, not on my father's side, but an uncle by marriage, my mother's sister's husband. Anyway, he was kind of negative towards science, and I remember that he used to think that I was a little strange for making these telescopes and looking out the windows and things like that. One day he was curious enough to ask to look through the telescope. So he looked through it, and he turned to me and he says, "Now I know you're crazy. Everything is upside down." [Laughter]
Did your mother continue to encourage you?
Well, actually, my mother was sort of neutral in that, like I say, she didn't have a scientific background, but certainly she was supportive of me getting an education.
You knew that your father wanted you to go into engineering.
Did your mother want that, too?
I had already started out on that road, at least toward that goal, by that time.
Was there any question that you would be able to go to college, considering your financial condition?
Well, yes. I did apply for scholarships and loans and things like that, and it was difficult in the sense that I did have to work and go to school. In other words, I didn't have financial support from my mother, because it was all she could do just to keep the household going. So I had some scholarships, I had a student loan, and I also worked part time. So between those three things, I was able to make it.
What was your work? What did you do part time?
Oh, it was just sort of routine things like busing dishes in the cafeteria. Nothing technically related, at least not till I got to grad school.
So during your undergraduate years, you didn't serve as a TA or research assistant?
No, not until I got to grad school.
Was the choice for Illinois, as you said, because it was your father's alma mater?
To some extent, although I did consider other possibilities like the Illinois Institute of Technology, which was in Chicago. One reason why I went to Champaign-Urbana was because I figured that I could concentrate on my studies better if I was away from home. Of course, if I hadn't gotten scholarship support, I would have not been able to afford that because of room and board expense.
Had you ever thought of the University of Chicago?
Yes, I had considered that, but they didn't have an engineering school. They had astronomy and physics, but they didn't have engineering, and my goal was to get a degree in engineering because I felt that that way I could further support my interest in space astronomy by helping to design the spacecraft and propulsion systems and things like that, because I had parallel interests in both the rocket engineering and the astronomy. Since the astronomers at the Adler Planetarium told me that space flight was nonsense, I wanted to sort of counter that by studying aerospace engineering and making space astronomy a reality. Of course, that's kind of a rather ambitious goal in itself, but when you're young and naive about these things. But I did continue to study astronomy as a minor during those years when I was getting my bachelor's degree.
Was there anyone who supported your idea?
There may have been here and there, but most of the people were ones who either supported the astronomy or the aerospace engineering. There was very little overlap.
I know that many of the popular books by Willy Ley and Pendre [phonetic], even von Braun to a certain extent, Arthur Clark, that they equated astronomy with space flight. You could see it with a book that would start out with an astronomical preamble, then get into the principles of rocketry and so on. Do you recall those books? Could you say anything about them?
Oh, yes. In fact, those were the kinds of books that I read even when I was in Milford. Collier's magazine's articles really got me going into the rocket engineering goal, were just the first exposure beyond science fiction. Then when we moved to Chicago, of course, I had access to a much larger number of books like that, which certainly I read and found inspiration in.
Excellent. Would you in any way describe the writers of those books as your role models?
Yes, I would say so. In fact, although it seems strange in the context that we talk about role models and mentors now, I could say that Wernher von Braun was certainly a role model to me in the sense that I read his books and, in fact, I even wrote him a letter asking for some information and he sent me an autographed photograph as part of his response. Of course, that was when I was back in high school.
Was that quite impressive for you?
Yes, it was.
Do you remember what your reaction was, even where you were, when you first heard about Sputnik?
I guess there were two events during my college career that stand out. One was the launch of Sputnik the very first year I was there, and the [John F.] Kennedy assassination the very last year I was there. Those two things probably are the two events in my college career that I would never forget.
What don't you forget about them?
Simply that it was something so totally unexpected and out of the ordinary, it's like you're in the middle of a routine day's work and then something happens and everything is turned around almost immediately. In the case of the Sputnik, basically what it did was to certainly reinforce my goals of going into space flight engineering, but also it turned off a lot of the criticism that I received from my peers that space flight is nonsense.
So that was continuing even at Illinois?
I would say so, certainly among the people who were interested in astronomy that I knew in Chicago.
Let's concentrate, then, on the University of Illinois for a little while. It's quite clear why you went there, what you went there to do. As you started taking basic courses, and I assume you had a curriculum in physics, chemistry, mathematics, did your goals, your aspirations remain the same?
Pretty much, at least through my undergraduate years.
Is there anything about your undergraduate years you feel we should talk about to better understand the development of your interests?
I guess one of the things that came as a shock to me when I went to University of Illinois, which I also warn students about nowadays, is that the transition from high school to college is not a trivial transition. In other words, what gets you an A in high school will get you a C or a D in college simply because the level of competition is an order of magnitude stiffer.
How were your grades in high school, and how did they change in college?
When I was in high school, at least certainly in the science area, I did very well. When I went to college, it came as quite a shock, because first of all, the level of competition was much higher and also because the professors were very impersonal in comparison to what it was like in high school, because I went to a mostly black high school and suddenly went to a mostly white university in which I was competing not with inner city kids like myself, but guys from the suburbs. I remember that because my mathematics background in high school was not adequate, not because I got bad grades, but because they just didn't have the courses that were required. I had to go to summer school the first year that I was in college and make up mathematics courses. I wasn't very good in mathematics, at least my first year in college, and I remember calculus being a very difficult course, and even physics was not all that easy when I took it in summer school, because they required calculus to be used in physics. That was quite a difference from what I was used to in high school. So my first year was relatively rough, but things got easier later as I got more attuned to the process, let's say.
Did you have science teachers or teachers at Englewood who were black, or were they white?
There were some that were black. My physics teacher was black and my general science teacher was. The chemistry and biology teachers, as I remember, were white, but I don't really recall any specific differences in the kinds of advice they gave me or anything like that. In fact, I even remembered that the physics teacher really was not a physics teacher in terms of background and experience and, to some extent, was not a very good teacher of physics. I had to learn a lot of it on my own.
Was there ever a time then or even at Illinois when you began to wonder about your goals and maybe it was futile?
No, I don't think I ever thought it was futile, even though there were some times when I was sweating courses like calculus and things like that. But I don't think I ever felt that I was considering changing fields or anything like that.
How do you think you managed to keep true to your goals when you didn't have, then, a personal mentor or role model who was encouraging you to do it?
Just the influence of what I had read in libraries and things like that. I think it was really just the outside influences more than anything else, not the personal close-up influences that kept me going, because I could see from what I was reading, not as part of my course work, but on the outside, the books by Willy Ley and things like that that you mentioned, that there really was something to be done out there, and I wanted to take part in doing it, even though I didn't have any direct support from teachers and certainly not from fellow students.
Where do you think you get this inner conviction? Are members of your family like that?
Not that I can say. I don't think so. I guess the only person in my family who might have had that kind of influence was my father, but he passed away too early in my career for that to have had an influence on me in high school and college.
But is it possible that he set such a strong imprint on you in your early life that that could be a reason for it being sustained?
That's a possibility. Certainly at least in the early stages it was.
Anything that you'd be able to expand on considering your father's influence at this point?
Not really. The thing is that since I was only twelve years old when he passed away, it's not likely that that would have had a whole lot of effect on me, certainly not at the college level, because the other major thing was the major change in my environment, moving from the country to the big city, because most of the reading that I did on my own was after we had moved to Chicago, because I had access to the libraries and things like that, the Adler Planetarium, all those kinds of things that I'd never had access to in the country.
Were these public libraries that you're talking about, or a school library?
Public libraries for the most part.
You graduated in 1961, but by that time you must have already been thinking about what you were going to do after graduation. What was the financial status of your family during this time, and did you ever consider leaving to go to work, to support your family?
The financial status of the family was not too different, because my two younger brothers had gone into the Army and, therefore, it wasn't that my mother had to support the other three kids. I was sort of self-supporting during that time. One of the things that did occur was that as I was studying aerospace engineering, I decided to branch out more into the astronomy, physics, and nuclear engineering, because nuclear engineering was something that seemed promising at the time as a method for spacecraft propulsion, for example, so I did a master's degree in nuclear engineering, although I have to admit that I have not really used that. Another thing that influenced me considerably was that my first year of graduate school I took a summer job at Aerojet in Sacramento, California, and that was my first real exposure to what engineers actually do.
What did you do?
I worked on several different projects. Actually, most was reliability and quality assurance on the Gemini and Titan II programs, and I got a little bit of exposure to the nuclear rocket program, even though that wasn't my major occupation during the summer. That experience was both positive and negative in the sense that it was certainly a positive experience to be involved in something like that, because I had never had the benefit of a co-op program for undergraduate students like we have here [NRL]. Many of the people who work in my group now came up through the co-op program, and I certainly highly recommend that.
The co-op program is a work-study program with local universities?
Did you have a role in creating it here?
No, it was in existence, but I would say that probably I'm one of the major users of the program in this division, at least. As far as the Aerojet experience was concerned, it was really exciting because it was the first time I had ever traveled very far from Chicago, my first trip to California that summer.
That was which summer?
Summer of '62, I think it was. I was in graduate school. The negative aspect of it was that I realized that that kind of thing was not really what I wanted to do as a career in the sense that there are two ways of doing science or engineering that were contrasted in that experience. There is the sort of academic kind of environment like we have here at NRL, where you can be involved in many or all aspects of a relatively small project, or you can do things like they do in these big aerospace companies like Aerojet, where you have a little bit of a very large project. I found that I really didn't enjoy the latter. I didn't really like being a small part of a large project, because the exposure that I had to the whole was very limited. At a company like Aerojet, and it's probably true of all of the aerospace industry today, because we still deal with them as contractors, is that they will have a big project, let's say, like a major satellite or a launch vehicle, and they will have a hundred engineers. The guy in one cubicle is designing a valve. The guy in the next cubicle is designing a turbine. The guy in the next cubicle is designing a plumbing system. Nobody has the whole picture, at least not at that level. Nobody has the whole picture of how all this thing is going to go together. That was what I missed during that summer experience was seeing what I was doing really fit into the whole, because I didn't get that much exposure to the whole except by reading on my own the literature that the company put out. But it was certainly an interesting experience and a useful experience, even though I decided that that wasn't the way I wanted to go. In parallel with that, my career was influenced by these books that I was telling you about that I read, and one thing that was very prominent in these books was Naval Research Laboratory, Herb [Herbert] Friedman's group. That was when I was still in high school that I was reading about Herb Friedman and his rocket launches, the V-2s and the Vikings. There was a book called The Viking Rocket Story.
By Milton Rosen.
Right, which I remember reading when I was in high school, and that talked about the rocket and how it was used for astronomy. So that was one of the major things that influenced my career choice was that at least back in the fifties, NRL was the leading organization in space science, at least from what I was able to read. So then while I was still in graduate school, I read about the postdoc opportunities at NRL, so needless to say, I applied right away.
NASA certainly was in existence at that time.
Well, NASA was not created until 1958.
But your Ph.D. is in '64.
That's true, but the books that I was reading dated before then. This was when I was in high school that I was reading about Naval Research Lab. It's certainly true that when I was at college, I knew about what was going on in NASA, and, in fact, I did submit applications to various NASA centers, but it seemed to me that since Naval Research Lab was the father of NASA, both the headquarters and the Goddard Space Center at least were started by NRL people, and they had the broadest program. In other words, the NASA center, once they branched out, tend to specialize more than the NRL group did. Having read about the Viking and Vanguard and the other projects that NRL was in charge of, it was certainly a logical place to go.
Did you get any advice from your own professors at Illinois while you were making these decisions?
Not really, because none of the professors that I worked with were in the subject areas that I was interested in. Even when I got to graduate school, there was still that dichotomy between engineering and astronomy, and was never overcome in that the people who were interested in astronomy weren't interested in the engineering.
McVittie, for example.
Well, yes, he was the theorist. Actually, I took him for celestial mechanics. Although it was certainly a useful course, he wasn't one of the people that I would have said would inspire me to do space astronomy or any of the other professors in the astronomy department, for that matter, although I certainly enjoyed working with them and we did actually do some observations with small telescopes and things like that at the time.
Were you reading the Astrophysical Journal in grad school at Illinois yet?
Yes. Not as part of my course work, but I certainly knew about it and used to page through it from time to time just to see what it was about.
What about space-related journals like Aviation Week or The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society? Are these journals you remember reading as a student?
Yes. In fact, what is now Aerospace American used to be the journal of the American Rocket Society. I remember reading there.
Do you remember any particular articles or areas that helped confirm your goals about NRL or anything else?
There were quite a few that were supportive. I can't remember any specific articles. Like I say, the thing that was noteworthy about those days was that there were very few articles on space astronomy per se. Mostly articles were either on science or on the engineering, but there was very little overlap except for the articles on the Naval Research Lab projects, where all of the work was done from space.
So the Naval Research Lab became your goal, the next step?
I notice you got an NSF [National Science Foundation] postdoctoral fellowship.
Is that the kind that allowed you to choose where you would go?
No, this was a specific program titled the E.O. Hulburt Center for Space Research, and it was specifically for postdocs in space science division at NRL. That was what attracted me to it, because it actually stated that on the announcement.
Where did you see the announcement, do you recall?
It was at the University of Illinois, but I don't remember exactly where.
You've mentioned that you also applied to NASA centers. Were you accepted?
No. Actually, I think I applied for summer jobs at NASA centers. I probably did submit some applications. I don't remember being accepted by any of them. If I was accepted, I probably turned it down. I really can't say for sure.
It would be interesting to know. Did you make any other applications to teach, for instance, or did you ever have any interest in teaching at that time?
At that time I didn't think so. I think I really wanted to get into hands-on experimentation more than anything else.
So Friedman was the person you heard about.
Friedman and [Talbot] Chubb and [R.] Tousey.
When you came here as a NASA postdoc in 1964, who were you assigned to, or was that the process?
It was primarily Talbot Chubb's group, the upper air physics branch, it was called at the time. The project that I was involved in was a rocket astronomy experiment to look for molecular hydrogen. Actually, I came for an interview during Christmas break in '63 and had the first opportunity to actually see what was going on here in person. As part of the application, I had to write a proposal. The proposal was centered on an experiment that they were already developing. The proposal was for a rocket experiment to look for interstellar molecular hydrogen. They had already been developing a rocket payload to do that, and what NRL was suggesting that I do was to propose carrying out that rocket experiment. There was one other aspect, though, and that is that while I was in graduate school I had come across some articles in Scientific American about electronic imaging devices which were quite new in those times. Although they advised me not to put that in my proposal, it was something that I pursued when I first came to NRL, was the development of electronic imaging devices for astronomy, space astronomy in particular.
Had you not done any of that at Illinois?
No. I had never even seen an image test fire at Illinois. Most of the work that I did for my thesis was the old-fashioned photographic plates.
What was your thesis topic, actually?
It was "An Experimental Investigation on Atomic Nitrogen Recombination." It was sort of a joint project between the aeronautical and astronomical engineering department and the electrical engineering department. It was a study of the spectra of atomic nitrogen recombination which actually was something that they had been working on in the gaseous electronics laboratory, but was relevant to aerospace engineering, high-speed reentry vehicles and things like that. The thing that I found interesting about that was that the assessing techniques, the spectroscopic techniques, were very similar for that kind of work as they are for astronomy.
But they were photographic at that time.
Yes. It was just an old-fashioned photographic spectrograph, where we had to take these eleven-inch-long plates and curve them against the focal plane.
A Wadsworth of some sort?
It was a prism spectrograph.
So what was the wavelength range you were working in?
It was in the visible. It wasn't UV at that time. Actually, I didn't get involved in UV until I came here to NRL.
Was that in your proposal?
It was in the proposal to work in the UV, but I did get practical experience in doing spectroscopy, even though it was in the visible, at the university.
What types of image intensification devices were you most interested in developing?
There was a type called electrographic or electronographic, as they called it in those days, in which you take electrons and record them directly on film as distinct from the more common image intensifier where you have electrons hitting a phosphorus screen, which gives off visible light, and then recording that visible light on film.
Who was doing electronographic work at that time?
At that time it was almost entirely in France. Lallemand was the person who developed the technique.
But at Lick, Gerry Kron was doing some of that.
I'm just curious, if you were interested in doing that sort of work, did you ever consider going to Lick Observatory during that time?
Actually, when I came to NRL, I wasn't aware of that at Lick Observatory. It was only that one Scientific American article on electronic imaging devices that I really knew about when I was still at the university, and most of the reading that I did on the subject of electronic imaging I did after I came to NRL.
Do you think, just speculating, if you had read about Kron's work and Merle Walker's work applying Lallemand devices at Lick just at that time, actually, '64, '65, do you think you would have gone to Lick or tried to?
I kind of doubt it, because they weren't in space astronomy. [Laughter] My main goal was to get involved in space astronomy.
Did you know before you got here what Friedman's laboratory strengths were?
Yes, from what I had been reading. But when I came for an interview was my first exposure to the actual people and the equipment and things like that. My impression was that it was a quantum jump over what we had at the university.
Who did you talk to during the interview?
I talked to Friedman, Chubb, and Tousey, as I recall. I probably met some other people, but I don't remember exactly who.
Did you tour the laboratories?
Yes. Since it was Christmas break, there weren't a whole lot of people around, but I did get to tour the laboratories.
How did you get here from Illinois? That's not a hop, skip, and a jump.
I flew here from Chicago.
So you had enough money for that sort of thing?
Actually, I think they paid my way. I don't remember for sure. I remember that it was not only Christmas break, but it was exceptionally cold for that time of the year. Even for Washington it was exceptionally cold. I remember when I got here it was 15 degrees, and they were saying how cold it was. I said, "When I left Chicago, it was 15 below." [Laughter] So it was cold everywhere.
Did they treat you quite nicely when you were here?
Yes, I thought so.
Did you feel that they were treating you as a special person?
I really don't know that they were treating me special. I guess one thing that I did have to overcome was there was a little bit of skepticism because my degree was in engineering, so I had to convince people that I really wanted to do science as well.
Who was skeptical?
I don't remember. I just sort of had a general sense that even here at NRL there was a dichotomy between engineers and scientists. Most of the people in the space science division, of course, were scientists, so most of them didn't really appreciate an engineering background. I guess one of the things that was also an impression that I got after I came here was that there was still a dichotomy between engineers and scientists in that when I talked to engineers, especially when I wanted to get parts made in the machine shop, they had sort of a negative attitude towards scientists because they felt that scientists didn't know how to design things, they weren't skilled at putting things together, they were all thumbs. They sort of found it strange that I was claiming to be a scientist, yet I was doing all my own drawings and doing a lot of my own assembly of parts. Of course, I had learned to do that when I was in graduate school, because we didn't have the resources to get other people to do design work and even, to some extent, machine shop work.
Would you say you learned your laboratory style at Illinois?
What really impressed me during the video history with Talbot Chubb, which was held in your laboratory, was that he looked at the equipment and some of it was made with metal framing and construction material, and he immediately recognized this as your influence from Illinois.
Yes, that's true, because that was where I got introduced to that type of construction. When I came here, nobody seemed to know about it. So my style of construction was something that stood out.
How did you feel about that?
Well, I don't know. It just seemed that since I had done my thesis work at the university where resources were rather limited and certainly manpower was limited, and I had been used to doing everything myself, so to speak, when I came here I got the impression that people were not used to doing everything themselves. If a scientist wanted a rocket payload designed, he hired an engineer to do it. If he wanted parts made, he went to the shop and had them made. There were very few people who used the lathe or drill press. Certainly glassblowing was something that not very many people did themselves, whereas that was something I had to do myself to a large extent at the university. So I noticed right away that there was a difference in style. I think that the fact that I did have a background in both engineering and science really paid off to a large extent because I was able to get things done quicker and less expensively than people who were used to just sticking with the science end, having someone else do the engineering, because one of the things that people seem to overlook is that there is the problem of communication between the scientists and engineers that makes it less efficient on a manpower basis to have an engineer and a scientist working together, at least on a small project than having one person do the job himself.
Was there any criticism of that kind of style here by people like Friedman?
Not really, but there was a lot of criticism of it by the technicians, because they felt that I was stamping on their turf. [Laughter]
Yes. In fact, there was some outright hostilities in that some of the technicians didn't like the fact that I was doing these things myself. They felt that that was their job. They told me so. They said, "This is my job to do this. Why don't you just stick to your science?"
What was your reaction?
Well, I shouldn't say it on tape, but —
The general thing was I told them, "Buzz off." I wasn't paying their salary, and they couldn't tell me what to do. They weren't paying my salary either.
Did this start from the beginning when you were a postdoc?
That's what I'm talking about is when I was a postdoc, for the most part. Once I got established, then that sort of faded away.
Do you feel there was any discrimination here?
No, I couldn't see that there was any racial discrimination at all. There was discrimination in the sense that the older established engineers and technicians were negative toward the young Ph.D.s with no experience, because they felt that the young Ph.Ds with no experience really didn't know what they were doing when it came to hardware, which was true to some extent. I have to admit that certainly experience helps a lot.
And you got that experience at Illinois?
To some extent, but I also got it here at NRL.
Let me change the tape so we don't run out in the middle of a thought. [Tape 2, Side 1]
So the tension here seemed to be more between senior engineers and junior Ph.D. scientists staff.
To some extent, because the technicians and the engineers didn't like the idea of scientists doing their own work.
There were senior people like Charles Johnson and others like Julian Holmes in divisions close to yours, and even E.T. Byram, very close. They certainly weren't trained as scientists, major science curricula. They were engineers. They'd been here for many years. Were they sympathetic to what you were up to?
Yes, I would say so. In fact, Julian Holmes is a specific case in that he actually helped me quite a bit in the early years, because after I did become permanent, I didn't really have a staff of my own. [Tape recorder turned off]
Can you describe Julian Holmes in some way as a mentor, as a role model?
Yes. He actually helped me quite a bit in some of my early experiments, because he was also very skilled at working with his hands on things, and he had a lot of experience in the practicalities. To some extent you might say it was a little risky in having young Ph.D.s go off and do their own rocket experiments, because not having a whole lot of experience, myself included, there was somewhat of a risk that a rocket experiment would fail because we didn't do something right. He had a lot of experience. He helped me quite a bit. In fact, several other of the postdocs who came under the Hulburt Center, he helped them, as well, in providing guidance. Really there was no one that you could say was assigned to the task of actually guiding those of us who came as postdocs. We were pretty much left on our own, which is good in many respects in that we weren't interfered with. We were free to pursue what we wanted to do, but also if we needed guidance in certain areas, sometimes that was lacking. So he, in particular, I remember as being very supportive of some of our early experiments. We actually went to the field. He actually went to White Sands on one of our early experiments. Actually more than one. Also I participated in one of their experiments, meaning Charlie Johnson's group, of which Julian Holmes was a member.
I know that they were using photoelectric sensors to look at the geocorona around this time, is that correct?
Yes, that's correct.
That wasn't too far from what you were doing, looking for interstellar hydrogen.
Right. The major difference was that we were doing it spectroscopically as opposed to looking at the air glow with photometers.
First let me ask just a straight factual question. Who were some of the other postdocs in your class? Who entered with you at this time?
Bob Meyer, who is still here, he came I guess a year or two after I did. There were two others who are now at Johns Hopkins, and they were Dick Henry and Paul Feldman. There's one other one who is still here, and that's Diane Prinz.
Was this the first year of postdocs like this?
Actually, I think it was one of the first. The one person that I definitely recall that was ahead of me was none other than Martin Harwit. Actually, he had left or was in the process of leaving when I first came in '64, and a year or two after that, he revisited NRL from time to time because he was working with Doug McNutt on infrared astronomy. He had started out developing an infrared astronomy program here at NRL when he was here under the Hulburt Center appointment, so I got to know him because he came back from time to time after he had left to go to Cornell to work on infrared astronomy.
Did the postdoc program continue?
Not for very long. I think it ended because there was a regulation passed that NSF could not fund other government agencies, so there was an attempt to get NASA to support it, which they did to some degree for a few years, but then after that it just sort of faded away. We also have the regular National Academy of Sciences postdoc program that other agencies have as well, but that's not specific to space science.
What about NRL itself or the Office of Naval Research? Any possibility there? Did they ever pick it up?
No, not specifically for the Hulburt Center. I think the Hulburt Center postdocs were a special case, which was really a separate thing from the regular postdocs that we've had all along, that are tenable in all the divisions.
Your postdoc period was '64 to '66. Did you make plans to stay here? Was that your intention or were there other options open to you?
I don't think that I seriously considered other options during those two years. It wasn't certain that I would be accepted as a permanent employee, but Herb Friedman, I think, was convinced that I should stay.
What do you think convinced him?
I don't really remember for sure.
What would you imagine?
Let's see. I guess I can't really say that I had actually made any scientific discoveries, because the first successful rocket flight we had was not until 1967, which was after I had converted. But he was probably impressed by my development of the electronic imaging devices, because that was something that was not being pursued by anyone else here.
When you came, of course, Friedman is world famous for his development of halogen counters and X-ray detectors, in that general category. These are generally monochromatic point source detectors. Tousey was world famous for his photographic techniques. Who was most enthusiastic or resistive to the electronographic techniques?
Actually, after I came to NRL, the technique that was being planned for use in the rocket experiment that I mentioned to look for interstellar molecular hydrogen was the use of Geiger counters in a spectrograph. I guess the task that I had was to pursue that approach unless I could come up with something better, and therefore one of the major things that I concentrated on for my first two years was developing something better, because the potential was that an imaging device could capture the entire spectrum in a single exposure as opposed to having to scan it with a photon-counting Geiger counter. I think that I had worked on that for a year, maybe a year and a half, before they decided that really the approach that I was proposing to use, the image tube, was the better approach, and therefore they dropped the original plan to use the scanning detector with Geiger counters.
This was Friedman's decision, I would take it.
Or Chubb's. I think probably between Friedman and Chubb.
Who did you go for advice about the electronographic technology?
Actually, there was no one around here who had any background in that, so it was strictly from reading. I did a lot of library research, but I didn't actually talk to anybody about it.
Can you tell me if there was any classified activity in that area?
No, there wasn't, as far as I know. I guess the other thing was that people were concerned about that technique because it required high voltages in vacuum, and that had never been proven in rocket flights. In fact, people had had a lot of bad experiences with turning on high voltage in rocket flights and having it break down or lose discharge. From a theoretical point of view, since the pressure at 150 miles altitude is 10-9 torr, 10-8 torr, it should work perfectly fine, but there is the unknown of the outgassing of the rocket itself. That remained unproven until we actually flew it.
That wasn't flown till 1967.
The first flight attempt was 1966, and it was not successful.
What was not successful.
There were several things that happened on that flight. One was that the rocket vehicle under-performed so it only got up to about 90 miles altitude.
Was that an Aerobee?
Yes. And partially as a result of that, the high voltage did break down and we didn't get very good results from it. Also there were some other problems with the attitude control system not performing, so even if it had gotten up to the proper altitude, we probably would not have gotten good data. But other than that, everything worked fine. [Laughter]
This was a rather inconclusive flight, then.
Right. But it was the first attempted flight of the electronic imaging devices. Actually, we had two on it. We had the spectrograph that was going to look for the molecular hydrogen and we also had a direct imaging camera to take UV pictures.
Who started encouraging you, might you say, the most about developing this type of technology?
After initial skepticism, I would say Talbot Chubb was probably the person who gave me the most encouragement.
Did you have any connection with the Carnegie image tube people over at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Kent Ford?
Yes, I talked to them from time to time and I was aware of their work. I don't think that anything that they were doing was directly applicable to what I was doing, because they were ground-based visible in their orientation, but certainly I read about how they processed their tubes and things like that so I could get some ideas for how to adapt the process to the UV-sensitive devices that we needed.
Was yours more of the Lallemand type?
It was, yes.
You did follow that technology?
Did you read French?
Did that slow you down?
There were enough papers in English about it that I was able to get what I needed.
Did you actually build tubes here in the lab, completely in-house?
Yes. Right. That's the difference between Lallemand and what we were doing, because since they were trying to make observations in the visible, they were actually having a much more difficult task, because the big drawback of the Lallemand device for visible light astronomy is that the photocathodes are so sensitive to degradation that you have to use ultrahigh vacuum techniques, bakeable vacuum systems, whereas in the ultraviolet you have the great advantage that you can use materials that are a lot less susceptible, like cesium iodide, which is stable in dry air. Therefore, the tube construction for the rocket work was actually a lot simpler than what it would have had to be for visible light-sensitive device.
I know that Lallemand tubes were very fragile. How did you get around that?
Ours were totally different in construction because of the fact that we didn't have to have bakeable vacuum systems. We actually had them open to the ambient. Windowless devices.
But they had to outgas very rapidly?
That's true. That was another feature that we adopted from the infrared group which was evacuated payloads, because until Martin Harwit's group started using cryogenics and had to use evacuated payloads, everybody had payloads that were open to the outside and depended on venting to get the pressure down. Since I foresaw the problem with outgassing on high voltage, I decided to borrow the infrared group's technology and use an evacuated rocket payload, which was, at least in the UV field, the first time that anyone had done that. That was probably part of the reason that I felt that they encouraged me to pursue that, even though everyone was skeptical about the high voltage problem. I should mention that the very first payload that flew in 1966was not an evacuated payload. The one that was successful was, in '67. That was an evacuated payload which was adopted from the ones that Harwit and McNutt had done for infrared.
Is it fair to say, after your first year or two here, that you had found your home?
Yes, I would say so.
For the video we're producing, how would you say that in your own words?
I would say that once I got established here, it sort of offered the optimum combination between hands-on engineering and science in the sense that I was able to be involved in all aspects of a flight project from the design of the hardware, the development and testing and calibration of the instrument, actually going out and flying the rocket, and analyzing the data that comes back. In that respect, I found "small science" much more satisfying than "big science," as exemplified by the Hubble Space Telescope, for example, because no one who works on Hubble Space Telescope can claim to be involved in all aspects of the mission.
Is this something that you would, in your interest in being a role model for younger people looking to a career in science and technology, recommend to them?
Yes, if they are inclined the same way as I am. Of course, some of them may be theorists, some of them may be not interested in engineering, but specifically interested in science, and some of them may be interested in engineering and not interested in science. So it depends on their inclination. If they have interests in both areas, then certainly small projects offer the opportunity to be involved in both areas.
Indeed, given your experiences and your interests, how do you see yourself as a role model?
I think that since I have a broad background, at least relative to many people in science and engineering in that since I have some experience in both engineering and science, I feel that I can at least give some general guidelines to students, maybe not specific ones for particular career options other than those I'm directly familiar with. But a lot of people do call on me to come to schools and give talks, participate in programs. In fact, almost every other week I get a call from a teacher somewhere wanting me to come talk to her students.
Do they ever ask you how you overcame the possible discrimination that people must think you must have had in your life, like any young black man growing up on the south side of Chicago or going to a white university? Do you ever discuss this in terms of your own experience?
Yes, I do. Most of them are surprised to hear that even though I went to school in the fifties and sixties, that I really didn't experience that much in the way of overt discrimination, although there are certainly some aspects of being a minority in a white university that makes it inconvenient to some extent, not that people discriminate against you, but they don't want to actually socialize with you, either. So if you have study clubs that all get together and exchange notes, you're left out. Not that they would prevent you from coming, but they just don't invite you.
Were there any other blacks in physics or engineering at the time you went through?
Yes, but very few. In fact, so few that it was almost very rare that there was anyone else in the class besides myself.
What about at NRL when you got here?
There was one other person, Randy Taylor, who was working here at the time. He was a chemist who was working in the space science division. He wasn't a Ph.D. level scientist and what he was doing was mostly development of ultraviolet and X-ray detectors. Certainly I got some good experience from working with him from time to time, even though we weren't on the same projects. Certainly he was a good person to talk to.
What about socializing with NRL people? Was that something that was important for you?
No. Actually, that was one thing that I never did much of was actually socializing in the sense of doing anything outside of the laboratory.
But I mean even just in the laboratory.
Yes. Well, mostly it was just discussions or business, for the most part. I did recall from time to time getting some helpful advice from people on various problems. Like when I first came to NRL, I had some problems with Railway Express Company losing my baggage, and I talked with Doug McNutt, and I said, "What do I do about this? They keep telling me they delivered this stuff." He said, "Why don't you talk to so and so." I'd call up so and so. Eventually I was able to get my problem straightened out.
That's the sort of thing that everybody's got at one point or another.
Let's talk about the evolution of your various projects. You were working on interstellar molecular hydrogen, developing electronographic technologies for essentially spectroscopic instruments. Once you were converted to the regular staff, who did you report to, and how were problems assigned or how did you go about deciding what you would do?
Actually, once I became permanent, I was working for Talbot Chubb as branch head.
Chubb was the branch head.
Yes. From that point on, there were no major changes in direction in the sense that we continued to further develop the technology that was used in the sounding rockets which led to the Apollo 16 camera and which continues today with our recent shuttle flights. The only major change is that in the last few years, we have been going away from the film recording devices to charge coupled devices, CCDs. But the basic technology is still pretty much the same as we developed in the mid-sixties.
So your electronographic techniques still had photographic film at the end that you had to retrieve?
Was there some resistance to the use of photography by Friedman or Chubb?
No, not by then. Some outside people looked down on it in the sense that they felt that something that produces an electronic signal is more quantitatively useful than film. Especially reviewers of NASA proposals sometimes didn't realize the difference between electrography and photography, and that electrography, even though it does use film, is a much more quantitative technique than photography, in which you take an image intensifier with a phosphorus screen and record the light output.
But did you see your sounding rocket work as evolutionary toward satellites?
Yes. In fact, that was the objective all along, at least after the first couple of years.
But you couldn't have film on satellites.
For the space shuttle, yes. But the main emphasis was on the manned missions like the Apollo and Skylab and the space shuttle, where you could get film back.
I know that before we get to Apollo 16, that Byram and Chubb, I think, or maybe it was Kreplin [phonetic], built a geocorona camera to go on Ranger. As Ranger was going to the moon, it would look back at the Earth. They were using Geiger counters as detectors certainly there. Is there any evolutionary development from the Ranger? Were they doing that when you first came, or had they finished?
I'm not really sure. I was never involved in it directly. I just heard about it as something that was done. I know that the one time that they flew it, it was not successful because of some problem with the rocket, but there was no further pursuit of that, as far as I know.
Walk me through the history of the Apollo 16 geocorona camera. When did you first start working on this and who proposed it?
The proposal was submitted in 1969 in response to an announcement of opportunity by NASA for follow-on Apollo experiments. The interesting thing about that is that there were two proposals submitted, one that I submitted and one which I was totally unaware of that was submitted by Dr. Thornton Page, who was at the time at the Johnson Space Center, the Manned Space Flight Center, as it was called then, in Houston, but who was a professor at Wesleyan University, who was down there as a sabbatical or something like that. He submitted a proposal to do very similar things to what I had proposed to do, except that he was proposing an imaging camera and I was proposing a spectrograph, but both of us were proposing to use my camera. The thing is, I wasn't aware at the time that he was submitting this proposal. In fact, I didn't even know who Thornton Page was until NASA called it to my attention afterward. In fact, Thornton Page probably also told me about it afterward that he was proposing to do UV imaging from the moon, and in his proposal he had not specified a detector, but he said options were a detector that Princeton University had used in rocket flights, a second possibility was one that Goddard Space Flight Center was developing, which used an image intensifier, and a third possibility was the camera that I had developed for sounding rocket flight. In his proposal, he actually made the statement that he thought that the NRL camera was the one that was best suited for the job. But like I say, I wasn't aware that he was submitting that proposal until after the fact. What happened was that NASA came back to us, meaning myself and Thornton Page, and said, "Why don't you all combine these two proposals into a single proposal for a single instrument. Then we will consider it as a single project." So we did that. Actually, Thornton Page submitted the combined proposal. At the time the idea was that he would be the principal investigator (PI) and that I would supply the instrument and be a co-investigator. But then after the proposal was submitted, it turned out that there were a lot of complications, and the fact that he was there at the Manned Space Flight Center on a sabbatical and his home institution was Wesleyan, and NASA felt that for that reason and the fact that we were going to be responsible for building the instrument, that I should be the principal investigator and Thornton Page should be the co-investigator. There was a little bit of resistance to that at first, as you might expect, but then Thornton Page did agree to that, that I would be the principal investigator and that he would be the co-investigator. His emphasis was really more on the science in terms of planning the observations, while I would be responsible for developing and calibrating the instrument. So most of the instrument design development was done here at NRL, but there was also a lot of coordination with the people at the Houston complex that Thorton Page did, plus he also did a lot of the mission planning, and some of the engineering was also done down in Houston.
How did you feel, or was there any comment, about being the co-PI here, that NRL was taking some sort of second-class status in a scientific project?
I don't think there would have been any objection from NRL, because that happens all the time. People here are co-investigators on other projects that have principal investigators elsewhere. In fact, that's a very common arrangement is that you have PIs and co-Is who are in different locations. So there are a lot of NRL people even now who are co-Is on university or other NASA center proposals and vice versa.
But it sounds, from your description, that here's Thornton Page coming up with this idea wanting to use essentially your equipment, so NASA says, "You two get together. You do the work (i.e., Carruthers), and Page will be the principal investigator." That sounds like at the very least institutional discrimination.
Actually it's not quite as bad as it might sound, because the way that NASA defines the principal investigator is the one who is in charge of the science investigation. For example, let me give a modern example of the whole space [unclear]. There are principal investigators who have virtually no involvement in the hardware, but who are primarily responsible for the science. In fact, that's true of most big-size experiments that the PI really doesn't do the hardware. So in that respect, the fact that there is a PI who is not involved in building the instrument is not an anomaly.
Not an anomaly, to be sure, but is this one of the reasons maybe why before you were saying that you preferred "small science"? Carruthers Yes, but even the Apollo 16 camera was bordering on not being "small science" in the sense that there are a great many people involved in it. In fact, the Apollo 16 project was probably the biggest science that I've ever been involved in. In fact, even our shuttle experience really is "small science" in terms of the number of people involved.
Those are SPARTAN-type payloads, primarily?
Or attached payloads.
Tell me how you developed a group to build the Apollo 16 camera and what resources were put at your disposal.
Like I say, it was sort of unique in terms of anything I'd experienced, including the shuttle, in the sense that it was what you might call a "crash project," in the sense that from start to finish was, in retrospect, an extremely short time. We submitted the proposals in 1969, the project was approved in 1970, and it flew in the spring of '72. Compare that with ten years for our last shuttle flight from the time of this proposal till the time it flew, certainly that was a unique experience. Also in terms of the number of people involved, it was quite different, because we had funding from NASA which we don't have from most of our DoD [Department of Defense] shuttle payloads. We have to essentially build them out of our own in-house funding. But the Apollo 16 was well funded by NASA, so we could hire lots of engineers. We had a large group over in the engineering services division of NRL who were responsible for the detail design of the instrument, the fabrication. We also had a lot of outside contracts. We had a project manager hired specifically to be a project manager, which usually that sort of thing is only true of bigger projects like some of the ones that Dr. Bruckner here gets involved in, like Space Lab. I guess another example was the UARS, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite. Those big NASA projects, usually they require that you have a program manager as part of the contract, and that was probably the only time that I've been involved in such a large project was that, but also the good news was that it was a very quick project compared to most of the other things other than sounding rockets.
This requirement of NASA to develop this hierarchy and the business-oriented structure, corporate-oriented structure, did you feel this was an unusual way to do science or technology development? Do you think that there's a better way to do it?
In retrospect, it wasn't, because most of the projects I have seen since then have been of the same type of structure, the big NASA-sponsored projects like the Sky Lab and the other things like Gamma Ray Observatory. All of these NASA-sponsored projects at NRL space science division has been involved in have the same kind of organization. It's just that I haven't personally been involved in any other project of that nature since the Apollo 16.
But is that out of choice or opportunity?
Well, both. I would say that we haven't really had an opportunity, a NASA-sponsored opportunity, to do a program of similar scope and size as the Apollo 16 camera. The recent shuttle flight that we had was certainly of comparable magnitude to the Apollo 16, but since it was stretched out over a period of ten years because of many factors, including the Challenger accident , we never had the concentration of effort and manpower that we had during that short period of time that the Apollo 16 project was being developed.
One thing I'd like to confirm, though, when the NASA RFP [Request for Proposal] came out in '69, did anyone encourage you to apply, or was that your own decision completely?
It was my own decision. In fact, to some extent you might say that we responded to almost every NASA announcement of opportunity. Of course, it's sort of like a game of chance, you might say, in that normally when NASA issues an announcement of opportunity, they only select like 5 or 10 percent out of all of the proposals they submit, so you might say that we had a shotgun approach. Every time an announcement of opportunity came out, we would propose, knowing that our chances were small, but every once in a while you hit the jackpot. So that was the one time that we hit the jackpot. [Laughter]
Did you feel at that time, or do you feel even now, you might give me some idea of progression of interest over time, that you were developing a technology for general use in a discipline, or that you were developing a technology that you could use for specific scientific ends? Which of the two better typifies your career?
I would have liked to think that it was generally applicable. In fact, that's the reason why we proposed a lot of different things, quite different in terms of their scientific objectives, because I felt that the technique that we had developed would be applicable to a wide range of scientific objectives. We also had the long-range goal of developing things for DoD applications, and that was the major justification that we had for that kind of thing, because, needless to say, the Navy does look to some kind of application, even if it's basic research. Astronomy, by itself, is hard to sell.
Who comes up with the possible DoD applications? Do you?
We have, to a large extent, with the advent of SDI, we got involved in more specific areas of plume technology, in particular, looking at rocket exhaust with UV cameras. That was only getting in the '85, '85 time period that we got involved in that. We had been trying to sell it for a long time prior to that, but we hadn't gotten much in the way of support other than our basic 6.1 funding.
By "we," who else?
I guess Talbot, Chubb, and Herb Friedman were involved in a lot of sales efforts, you might say.
What does 6.1 mean?
That's basic research.
Actually, we've covered a good bit of the majority of what I'd hoped to cover, but I have just a few more questions. After Apollo 16 — and, of course, there's no way to go through the whole story of Apollo 16 here; I'd like to get better prepared and maybe continue that on at a later time — but you continued developing electronic cameras, UV cameras, and you flew on Skylab and for other purposes. At any point here did you develop your own personal astronomical agenda and think of yourself more as an astronomer doing astronomy, rather than as an instrument builder building instruments for astronomy? Sort of another way of asking the question I asked before.
I don't think that the relative importance of instrument development versus astronomy changed. The areas of astronomy that I pursued did change, because one of the things that sort of made a big difference was that after we made the first discovery of molecular hydrogen in 1970, the Princeton group launched the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory (OAO) III in 1972, I think it was, which, of course, was a much more powerful instrument that anything that we could bring to bear. So I sort of got out of that pursuit altogether because I felt that that was not something that I could compete in any further. The emphasis shifted toward the astronomical observations of diffuse objects like comets and diffuse nebulae, which was something that NASA was not pursuing with any of their OAOs or the IUE or even the HST, for that matter. So our emphasis since then, at least in the astronomy area, has been on studies of diffuse background, nebulosities, and comets.
That would be similar to the interest here on the geocorona, too, wouldn't it?
That's right. And also it's an area where the unique capabilities of our instrument are most important.
I'm curious about the molecular hydrogen episode. The OAO III took many, many years to get off the ground, and, of course, it was many years over budget and original launch date. You must have been aware of what they were doing. Was this sort of a way to get in there, to see, indeed, if molecular hydrogen existed in the interstellar medium before OAO took over?
Actually, the competition between us and Princeton was not limited to OAO. They had their own sounding rocket program as well, so it was sort of nip and tuck between them and us, because they couldn't very well have done it with a sounding rocket as well. The advantage we had was that we had the electrographic camera, whereas they were recording spectra photographically.
They weren't trying any of the SIVITS, or secondary emission photocathode technologies?
No, they were using strictly photographic techniques.
I'd like to get into that a little more in detail someday. How have your interests and activities developed, do you feel, in the post-Apollo era? Did you go back to sounding rockets?
Yes, we did, because there were no other opportunities. In fact, you might say that the Apollo era was the high point not only of my activities, but space science in general, because it was a fast-paced program and there were no funding restrictions, whereas nowadays in the shuttle program, there is no urgency to fly anything, and the funding is, at least in relative terms, adjusted for inflation, is much harder to get.
Let me turn over the tape just to get a last few questions in.
:Just to finish up on that subject, a major thing was that after the Apollo program in 1972, there were no actual orbital opportunities until the space shuttle became operational in the 1981 or '82 time period, because there was that long hiatus. So sounding rockets really were the only thing that we had during that ten-year period after the Apollo mission.
There were Air Force satellites that I know Friedman. P78-something-type series of satellites.
Was your technology not appropriate for those satellites?
It was not appropriate because of the fact that we used film, so we were, at least at that time, limited to the manned space flight missions that could return film.
When did you start looking at CCD-type technology?
That was not until the early 1980s, because up until that point the technology was not developed to the point that we could consider it as a replacement for film. CCDs in sizes large enough, meaning the number of pixel elements large enough to be competitive with film, or at least comparable to film, didn't start coming out until the early 1980s.
You didn't look for any other electronic area detectors before then?
No, we didn't, because we had all that we could handle just with the film recording devices in the rocket program and also trying to get things on the space shuttle. But another thing that might be of interest is that I said that we were head-to-head competition with Princeton back in the mid-sixties before the molecular hydrogen discovery and the launch of OAO2. But when it came to the CCDs, we were collaborating with them to a very large degree, in that they actually were the first ones to start developing the electron bombarded CCD, which is the technology that we're using as a replacement for film. Ed Jenkins at Princeton University flew the first rocket experiment that used the electron bombarded CCD, and we worked with him on that rocket experiment.
So it's like the marriage was tailor-made. You produced the electrons with your electronographic camera.
Right. That's basically what we did was replace film with CCD. We didn't actually build his camera, but we made the photocathode surface and did some of the calibrations here.
I think for now we've gone far enough with your history. Let me just end by again returning to some of the things we talked about in the beginning. These deal with Project SMART and science education. These are straight-out questions that possibly might be helpful in planning the video. How would you respond to the following kind of question: must science education somehow change to reach black youth?
I think that the real lack in science education at the present time is not race-specific; I think it's true in science education in general, is that many of the teachers of science are not really trained in science specifically. They certainly aren't trained in the practicalities of it. So one of the best ways of helping out that situation is to have practicing scientists and engineers work with the teachers to supplement what the teachers do, and programs that supplement classroom experience are very important. I'll get to some aspects of that in a second, but one of the things is based on my own experience, is that classroom teaching is often boring and often doesn't relate to practicality, both because of the way in which it's presented and because the teachers really aren't versed in the practical aspects of it anyway. So if you can supplement that by having demonstrations, hands-on activities, having students go to places like NRL, where science is actually being done, like the Summer Science and Engineering Apprentice Program as one example, where students come here and work for eight weeks during the summer, those kinds of things which they didn't have when I was in school, I think are very helpful supplements to the classroom. Another aspect of that is that we can help the teachers themselves by working more directly with the teachers, make suggestions about things that they can do in the classroom. Of course, we can't get around the board of education's rules and regulations. Their bureaucracy is just as bad, if not worse, than the bureaucracy of the Department of Defense or any other agency. Just because we want to change something doesn't mean we can change it. But certainly if we work one on one with the teachers and just don't tell the higher-ups what's going on, we can make a difference.
You've been able to do that over the last several years to your satisfaction?
Not to my satisfaction as yet, but I think that we're starting to make some progress. One of the big learning experiences we face on our side is, like I said about the bureaucracy of the schools themselves, sometimes I get the impression that teachers and school administration are not enthusiastic about us helping them because they feel that we're tramping on their turf or they're doing things that their regulations don't allow for, and what's best for the students may not be obvious to the teachers anyway in some cases. For example, if we tell the teachers that we would like to come over and give a talk for the students, you might think offhand that they would say, "Oh, yeah, why don't you come on over and we'll tell you when." But sometimes you never get a call back.
Why do you think that's the case?
I think, like I said, it's partially because they feel that we're doing something that they feel is their job. That's getting back to my experience with the technicians here at NRL back when I first came here. The teachers might think that we're making them look bad if we do something that the students really get more out of than what they teach in class. Certainly I'm not trying to put down all teachers. There are quite a few teachers who really appreciate and look for our help. The other thing is that we have to get the word to the students and encourage them to participate in activities, because one of the things that I found out the hard way is that you can announce something to the students, like, "We're going to have a workshop on such and such a date at the Air and Space Museum," and nobody shows up. We tell them about it, but they don't come. When you stop and think about why they don't come is because it's something that's above and beyond what they are doing in school, and there's no incentive for them to come unless they are already specifically interested in it. They don't get extra credit for it. So we have to come up with some way of providing some incentive for them to participate in these kinds of things, especially off-campus kinds of activities. So we have to get with the teachers and see if we can arrange some way for them to receive extra credit or, at the very least, at least for the teachers to actually actively encourage students to take part in things that are off campus and outside regular school hours.
So is it correct to say at this time you're looking for those incentives?
And that the videos that we are planning might be one type of incentive that would be shown in the classroom?
Right. In fact, that's another area that we've been trying to pursue, is getting videos shown in the classroom. The obstacle that we have to overcome there is that the classroom schedule is already full, and teachers are not usually inclined, or at least they find it difficult to find the time to show videos and have guest speakers in classes that already have a full agenda. So somehow we have to find times in the school schedules where these kinds of things can be accommodated, and since we're not educators ourselves, it's difficult as outsiders to make that kind of judgment.
Are you ever treated as an exception to the rule in the black community, given your background, your interests, and your pretty unique career?
Well, to some extent, but on the other hand, black scientists and engineers in general are relatively rare.
That's what I'm trying to get at.
Right. Now, I should also point out that it's not nearly as rare as it was when I was going through school, in that I had no black scientists or engineer role models at all when I was in school, because they probably existed, like George Washington Carver and others certainly existed, but they were never brought to our attention. Certainly white teachers would never tell you about it, at least not in those days. The few role models that did exist, we weren't aware of. But nowadays there has been a great deal of improvement in both the number of examples that people can point to and also the fact that people are more actively pursuing that kind of thing, to bring the role models to the attention of the students. So in summary, I would say the students have a much better opportunity now than they did back in the fifties and sixties, but we still need to pursue it further. We're still a long ways from having a satisfactory situation, I would say.
Thanks a lot. I think that we've had a very good first session, so I'll end it here. Thanks.