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'You can dream big': NASA scientist advocates for disability inclusion in space

NASA scientist K. Renee Horton is preparing  for her first zero-gravity flight for people with disabilities. (Courtesy of K. Renee Horton)
NASA scientist K. Renee Horton is preparing for her first zero-gravity flight for people with disabilities. (Courtesy of K. Renee Horton)

It’s Black in Physics week, a time to celebrate Black Americans in the field and paint a fuller picture of who actually works in physics.

So let us introduce you to NASA scientist K. Renee Horton of New Orleans, Louisiana, who has a PhD and currently serves as an airworthiness deputy for the Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstrator Project.

“What we do is we make sure that the plane is going to be worthy of flying, that it’s safe, and that we’re able to complete our mission,” Horton says. “If we’re not able to complete a full mission, to be able to meet the minimum requirements and to do it in a safe manner.”

K. Renee Horton. (Courtesy)

Horton says she has struggled with feeling overlooked in her industry for being Black, for being a woman and for being someone with hearing loss, which, at first glance, might be seen as an “invisible” disability.

Her experiences have inspired her to advocate for people with disabilities and their inclusion in physics. And the sky is not the limit for her; She dreams of people like herself blasting off to space.

In December, Horton will embark on a special flight with other people with disabilities through a nonprofit group called Astro Access.

Horton and her co-passengers will fly within the Earth’s atmosphere in a way that allows them to experience zero-gravity, similar to the training that astronauts go through.

Interview highlights

On what inspired her to get into science

“I always love this question because it’s always those parents who do those things for kids… not knowing that it will make an impact on the rest of their lives. And so at nine, my dad and my mom got me a telescope. I had been wanting one, so it was my Christmas gift that year.”

On what it’s like to be one of the few Black women at the highest levels of physics

“Physics is a white-male-dominated field. We used to always say we’re never going to be a part of the ‘good old boys club’ because that club is truly in a place where we stand out one as women, but then again as Blacks.

“For me, there’s an organization called the National Society of Black Physicists. And I had the honor of serving as its president. And during that time, it made me realize that I belong in that area. I [have] a talent, and I have something to contribute. And when we’re dealing with all the other things that go along with why people don’t survive in an area…. or survive in a particular field… standing as the president made me realize that all the fighting I was doing was worth it. [It] was worth being there and being able to bring my talent there as well.”

On the discriminations she has overcome

“I’m glad you mentioned the elephant in the room, the discrimination. Believe it or not… it’s a field with a lot of discriminations. There are a lot of people who still feel that it is ‘the elite of the elite,’ as far as science is concerned. And for them, it’s really hard to think of people that were originally enslaved being able to be in a field that is ‘the elite of the elite.’

“Being able to matriculate through this field over the last ten or 12 years, I’ve just really come into some serious hurdles along the way. It’s like they’re willing to play dirty sometimes because I can have the best science in the world, or [be able] to communicate it, or [be] able to do it. But yet and still, you want to bring up my private life… or things like that.

“I was a nontraditional student, so I actually started college at 16 [and] found out about my hearing disability between 17 and 18. And then I got pregnant, dropped out of school, traveled with my husband at the time following his career. And then I came back to school after ten years. Well, one of the things I would often hear my male colleagues say was, ‘You know, women belong at home with their children,’ because I had small children at the time. And so just dealing with those [types] of discriminations and then learning how to balance your work life, balance your load, being able to give your family what they need while pursuing your career and also keeping your family separate from your career because men are able to do that as well.”

On how severe her hearing loss is

“I have moderate to severe hearing loss in both ears, though I always tell people it’s bilateral. So I wear hearing aids on both sides. Originally, I had some of my lows and then some of my highs. Ironically, I still hear birds naturally without hearing aids, but I lost the section of my hearing which was in the speech range. So for those who speak English as a second language, my brain does not always compute with an accent what is actually being said. And I don’t hear those words clearly. Over time, my hearing has degraded and now I’ve lost some of the lows as well.”

On what hearing loss has meant for her life

“Oh, gosh. At the time my hearing loss was discovered, it was a game changer for my life. I had gone in to do my Air Force ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) physical, to pursue a career as a pilot and then go on and apply for the astronaut corps. That was my big dream, right? And then when I found out I was hearing impaired and I did not qualify for the Air Force as an officer, it really shook me to my core because I didn’t know at that time what else I wanted or how to pursue anything. I felt as if I was a defect and a reject at that moment.

“When I got pregnant, it was like I was okay with being a mom and following my husband’s career, at the time. And then we separated seven years later. At that time, I realized… there was so much more that I really could achieve.”

On the turning point that changed her trajectory after her hearing loss diagnosis

“I had given birth to my daughter the year before I decided to go back to college. And [I was] constantly looking at her and knowing I wanted the world to be different for her. So I decided to go back to undergrad and [I] finished undergrad in two years and then went on to get my Ph.D.”

On her upcoming zero-gravity flight for people with disabilities

“For me, this will give me the experience of what weightlessness feels like. It’s just like being in space, even though we will not be in space. But this also could lead to bigger things. I’m super, super excited about that. It never even crossed my mind that this was something I could do.

“One of my fellow fliers last year contacted me and was like, ‘You should apply.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know about that.’ He flew last year and he’s deaf. I was thinking, ‘Woah, maybe I shouldn’t be limiting [myself] at this point.’ And so this year, I applied and I was accepted as a part of a crew of 16 of us.

“I’m just amazed that I’m a part of this group… because there are paraplegics and amputees and there’s the deaf, there’s the blind. And their mission, Astro Access’ mission, is to make sure that people with disabilities can be in space, that space is affordable and available to all of us through this program. I’m really excited about being able to be a part of it. I touch so many different facets when I look at my intersections in life and with as many kids that I get to walk out, speak to, talk to, like being able to add this adventure, and being able to talk about it later, will let these kids know that no matter what, you can dream big and you can have these dreams.”

On writing children’s books to inspire future astronauts

“It started off as a joke because I created the character [Dr. H] and then people are like, ‘What are we doing with the character?’ [The character] is me. And she has hearing aids, just like me. It was more or less to show people that you don’t have to look or be like everyone else to still be able to do the things that you love to do.

“In the book, we travel through space, and in doing that, the kids get to learn amazing facts about the planets, and I absolutely love it. So when the kids see me, they go, ‘Oh my God, you’re back from space.’ And it’s like, ‘Yes. I went in my imagination, but I went.’ So they also get to understand that it’s okay to be able to imagine and dream the things that you want to do, because you can either write about them as an author or you can live them as an astronaut.”

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Locke also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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