NASA Launches Program With 54 Minority Students


The serious-looking father and his lanky, baby-faced son seemed dazzled by the spiel that Wendell Greer, summer principal of Gardena High School, was delivering.

Yes it was sudden, Greer said, but NASA was offering to foot the bill for the boy, 17-year-old Torian Mitchell, and 53 other students in the Los Angeles area to spend part of the summer at an all-expenses-paid science program at Central State University in Ohio. After the program, the students would take a swing through the southern United States on a tour of traditionally black colleges and universities. Torian would have to be on a plane Monday.

“NASA just got the funding for it, and we found it out real late, but I think this will do a lot for him,” Greer told Torian’s father, Raymond Mitchell, who nodded in agreement .


At 6 feet, 4 inches and loaded with athletic talent, Torian dreams of playing in the NBA. (That he had an uncle who reached 7 feet, 3 inches gives him hope for a late growth spurt).

Whirling to address Torian, Greer pounds at that dream: “I told you all next year you’re going to be in the spotlight because the way you play basketball is the way you’re going to do other things.” The principal was referring to academics.

“We’re going to go shopping right now,” Raymond Mitchell said to his son.

Because of a bureaucratic snafu, NASA did not receive the full $300,000 funding for the pilot program, called Earth to L.A., until last week. High School principals throughout Los Angeles, Inglewood and Pasadena rushed to select students and persuade their parents that the trip would be beneficial. Most of those participating in the program are African American; a few are Latino.

The six-week program, offered only in the Los Angeles area, is intended to encourage minority students from inner-city communities to pursue earth sciences and mathematics at traditionally black colleges and universities.

The 54 chosen students, who had to have at least a B average, were chosen from Bell, Pasadena, Muir, Morningside, Inglewood, South Gate, Roosevelt, Jordan, Locke, Banning, Hamilton, Dorsey and Gardena high schools.

On Tuesday, they began a four-week stay at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, studying computer science, earth sciences and mathematics. Each student receives a $60 weekly stipend and help from the the Los Angeles-based Council of Black Administrators.


The students are scheduled to visit 12 colleges, including three in Atlanta (Morehouse and Spelman colleges and Clark Atlanta University), Fisk University in Tennessee, Hampton Institute in Virginia and Howard University in Washington.

Up to the last minute Saturday morning, principals were urging, badgering, pushing and flattering their most promising students into being ready to leave Los Angeles by Monday.

Greer, shoving an application into the hands of one student who worried that going on the trip might harm his standing on the football team, told the youngster: “Looking at you, I think you could own a team rather than be on a team.”

Greer added: “Look, Coach (Donald) Threat went to Alabama A&M.; Tell him you’ll bring him back a hat, and he’ll be just fine.”

The student, Steven Brooks, 17, signed up for the trip.


On Saturday afternoon, the students and their parents and teachers filled a room at the Museum of Science and Industry in Exposition Park to hear a pep talk from NASA and other government officials.

The Earth to L.A. program was developed after NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin introduced himself to U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).


At Saturday’s gathering, Goldin recounted how he met with Waters last year to talk about the space program, but she stopped him mid-sentence and asked him what the space program was doing for her district.

“I stopped cold,” Goldin said. “I walked out with my tail between my legs.”

He went back to research minority participation in NASA and found that of 580 executives, only 14 are African American. Goldin said he imposed a hiring freeze for the agency until it developed an affirmative-action plan.

He urged the students to pay attention in class, study at night and “turn off the television. . . . NASA is spending $300,000 for this program. Understand that you’ve been given a blessing.”

Waters was much more direct. “We expect you to conduct yourselves at a very high level,” she said. “You represent all of us here. You represent your schools, your community, me, your parents, NASA, Central State, everybody. We don’t expect any excuses.

“And I expect everybody out of this first class to enroll in college,” she said.