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Wesley Harris

Aerospace engineer Wesley L. Harris was born in Richmond, Virginia on October 29, 1 941. His parents, William Harris and Rosa Harris, worked in Richmond’s tobacco factories. As a child, Harris was intrigued by airplanes and learned to build different models. In the fourth grade, he won an essay contest about career goals with a paper on how he wanted to become a test pilot. After receiving his B.S. degree with honors in aerospace engineering from the University of Virginia in 1964, Harris enrolled at Princeton University and graduated from there with his M.S. degree in aerospace and mechanical sciences in 1966 and his Ph.D. degree in aerospace and mechanical sciences 1968.

After completing his Ph.D. at Princeton, Harris taught at the University of Virginia and at Southern University before joining the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1972 where he served as a professor of aeronautics and astronautics. He established MIT’s first Office of Minority Education in 1975 in order to help retain minority students and improve their performance. In 1985, Harris was appointed Dean of the School of Engineering at the University of Connecticut; and from 1990 to 1995, he served as vice president and chief administrative officer at the University of Tennessee Space Institute and then as associate administrator for aeronautics NASA. In 2003, Harris was named head of the department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT in 2003.

Harris’ many honors and achievements include serving as chair and member of various boards and committees of the National Research Council, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Army Science Board, and several state governments. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the American Helicopter Society. The National Academy of Engineering elected Harris as a Fellow for contributions to understanding of helicopter rotor noise, for encouragement of minorities in engineering, and for service to the aeronautical industry.

Wesley L. Harris was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on April 25, 2013.

Accession Number

A2013.004

Sex

Male

Interview Date

4/26/2013

Last Name

Harris

Maker Category
Occupation
Schools

Princeton University

University of Virginia

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Wesley

Birth City, State, Country

Richmond

HM ID

HAR38

Favorite Season

Fall

State

Virginia

Favorite Vacation Destination

Home

Favorite Quote

The Greatest Gift Is To Give.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Massachusetts

Birth Date

10/29/1941

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Boston

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Steak (Rib Eye)

Short Description

Aerospace engineer Wesley Harris (1941 - ) was head of the department of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. He was also elected as a fellow of the National Academy of Engineering for contributions to the understanding of helicopter rotor noise, for encouragement of minorities in engineering and for service to the aeronautical industry.

Employment

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

UTSI

University of Connecticut

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

University of Virginia

Southern University

Harris Analytics and Planning, Inc.

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Wesley Harris' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Wesley Harris lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Wesley Harris describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Wesley Harris talks about the occupations of his mother's side of the family

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Wesley Harris talks about his mother and his maternal grandparents

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Wesley Harris describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Wesley Harris describes his father's restaurant

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Wesley Harris describes his parents' personalities and who he takes after

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Wesley Harris talks about his siblings

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Wesley Harris talks about his twin brother William Harris pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Wesley Harris talks about his twin brother William Harris pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Wesley Harris describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Wesley Harris describes the sights, sounds, and smells of his childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Wesley Harris describes walking through the white district to get to school as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Wesley Harris talks about his mentors in school

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Wesley Harris talks about his high school science fair project

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Wesley Harris talks about his aspiration as a fourth grader to be a test pilot

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Wesley Harris talks about the University of Virginia-pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Wesley Harris describes his time at the University of Virginia-pt 2

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Wesley Harris talks about his mentors at the University of Virginia

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Wesley Harris describes the group of African American students at the University of Virginia

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Wesley Harris describes his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement at the University of Virginia pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Wesley Harris describes his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement at the University of Virginia pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Wesley Harris talks about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Wesley Harris talks about the 1963 March on Washington

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Wesley Harris describes the impact of the U.S. space program on his education

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Wesley Harris describes his decision to attend Princeton University for graduate school

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Wesley Harris talks about his mentor at Princeton University

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Wesley Harris talks about anti-Semitism in Ivy League schools

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Wesley Harris describes his doctoral research

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Wesley Harris describes how he was recruited by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Wesley Harris describes the findings of his doctoral dissertation

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Wesley Harris talks about his time at Southern University pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Wesley Harris talks about his time at Southern University pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Wesley Harris explains why he left Southern University pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Wesley Harris explains why he left Southern University pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Wesley Harris talks about his time as a professor at the University of Virginia

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Wesley Harris talks about his children and his first wife

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Wesley Harris describes being a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Wesley Harris describes his research on helicopter rotor acoustics

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Wesley Harris talks about his research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Wesley Harris describes his work on coastal ocean radar with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Wesley Harris talks about receiving the Irwin Sizer Award

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Wesley Harris describes his time at the University of Connecticut

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Wesley Harris describes his time at the University of Tennessee Space Institute

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Wesley Harris talks about the University of Tennessee Space Institute

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Wesley Harris describes being an associate administrator at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration pt. 1

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Wesley Harris describes being an associate administrator at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration pt. 2

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Wesley Harris reflects on his work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Wesley Harris describes why he left the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Wesley Harris talks about the Lean Aerospace Initiative and Lean Sustainment Initiative

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Wesley Harris talks about becoming a member of the National Academy of Engineering

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Wesley Harris describes his time at Arizona State University

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Wesley Harris talks about the aeronautics and astronautics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Wesley Harris talks about Leon Trilling

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Wesley Harris describes the James Shirley incident at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Wesley Harris talks about the flight tests of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - Wesley Harris provides his predictions on the direction of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Tape: 8 Story: 8 - Wesley Harris talks about STEM education in the United States

Tape: 9 Story: 1 - Wesley Harris talks about his research on the fluid dynamics of blood flow pt. 1

Tape: 9 Story: 2 - Wesley Harris talks about his research on the fluid dynamics of blood flow pt. 2

Tape: 9 Story: 3 - Wesley Harris describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 9 Story: 4 - Wesley Harris reflects on his life

Tape: 9 Story: 5 - Wesley Harris reflects on his legacy

Tape: 9 Story: 6 - Wesley Harris talks about his family

Tape: 9 Story: 7 - Wesley Harris talks about his involvement in football during high school pt. 1

Tape: 9 Story: 8 - Wesley Harris talks about his involvement in football during high school pt. 2

Tape: 9 Story: 9 - Wesley Harris talks about how he would like to be remembered

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$7

DAStory

1$4

DATitle
Wesley Harris talks about his high school science fair project
Wesley Harris reflects on his work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Transcript
You were talking about this cloud chamber in the break, but how did you build that? I mean you say kids ask you today, how did you do it without the internet, right?$$Right. So the idea was that you wanted to observe, in my case, the trajectory of alpha particles and so how do you do that? Alpha particles are fairly large and high energy so if you have a, an environment where they can collide and you visibly can see the collision or the results of the collision then you could in fact track them. So if you had in those days these old radioactive Rayon watches, you could clip off a piece of the dial and that would serve as your alpha particle. To get the condensement atmosphere you build a box that was insulated, put in that box dry ice, okay, and on top you would put a damp wet cloth which when it interacts with the dry ice would form a cloud. And then you look at the, look through the top, alpha particles projecting through the cloud coming down, you see the collisions and you could track it. So the idea was to generate the correct environment. And the cloud chamber is what we called it in those days, still call it a cloud chamber. But you had to build a box, put ice in there, dry ice, not water ice but it had to be very cold and get the condensation, get the alpha particles, there it was. So, but Eloise Bose Washington, who is this woman, who is she, why do I remember her name so distinctly, why do I remember her even more so than Edmonds and Street and Mrs. Hartley and even Judon? Eloise Bose Washington one of the rare black women that went north in the 40s [1940s] to the University of Pennsylvania [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] to earn a masters degree in physics, you may ask well why in the hell would a black woman go north in the 40s [1940s] for a masters degree in physics and come back to the south? What could possibly be on her mind? What was she going to do? What job was open to her? None, other than the classroom, but she had a degree in physics. So the blessing was that I was one of her students. Not only was she a good teacher but she had the foundation. She knew physics okay, and therein lies the success. Therein lies the opportunity. Therein lies the greatest gift, all right, that Eloise Bose Washington was there or I was there when she was, let's put it that way, a tremendous spirit, a short woman, rather wide, rather big, again the tough love. "Wesley, you will go to the University of Virginia, okay?" And she said that because she never forgave herself for the third place finish at the University of Virginia. We had won first in the black community, the black competition and then she said "Wesley, we'll go to University of Virginia [Charlottesville, Virginia] with the cloud chamber and we finished third and she always thought she was the reason for it.$$Hmm.$$Yeah, she did. She--so I said "Yes, Ms. Washington, I will go. But tell me why do you want me to go?" She said, "Two reasons." She says, "Wesley, you are black and there's no way those white folks up there would ever misinterpret who you are whenever they see you." Second, she says, "You will be successful and that's very important to us that you succeed at the University of Virginia." Okay.$$So this is, I just want to go back to that for a second cause she's saying something really significant here because it's often said when someone, some African American succeeds that it's because he's part white or something, you know, he's a lighter guy and that sort of thing.$$Right.$$So she's actually saying, she's focusing on your color?$$Yeah.$$She's saying--$$Yeah.$$--you're the perfect person to--$$Yes, yes.$$--you'll really shake things up to let people know what our capacity is cause you're unmistakably--$$Right, yeah that was a part of her calculation, make no doubt about it, yes, right.$$Okay.$$Because in her generation and also in mine--$$[BRIEF INTERRUPTION]$$Okay, all right. So--$$Yeah, so Eloise Washington did want to make that point that it was about demonstrating scholarship by, for and about black folks in a way that's unmistakable, that it is of this, it is of black folks. And that was something that she wanted me to understand that that's the--remember now just a rising senior in high school and she made that point very, very clear, "You are black and they will not misinterpret that and you will be successful."$$Okay.$$So that's Eloise Bose Washington.$While at NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration], you were elected a fellow of the American Helicopter Society?$$Yes, oh yes. Yes, that's--okay, so the rotorcraft community obviously since the work I did here at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts] in main rotor acoustics has always been a part of my aero portfolio. In a lot of ways, rotorcraft was a stepchild. Most of NASA's effort was focused on fixed wing aircraft. The U.S. Military, especially the U.S. Army has always needed better, more efficient helicopters. So working with a man named George Stingley, we developed a joint program involving NASA and DOD [Department of Defense], three-headed program after-anyway, involving the rotorcraft industry to share, to develop and share common technology. And that, no one had done that before to bring those four, those three players, NASA, the rotorcraft industry and the U.S. Army together to solve common research problems related to rotorcraft where NASA put in money, DOD, U.S. Army put in money and the rotorcraft industry put in money. So that was bringing together those three stakeholders in a way to find a common solution to common problems and that's, was, I guess enough for the Helicopter Society to say, "Make this guy a fellow."$$Okay, okay. And also you were, you received the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal. I guess be-- is that just before you left?$$Yeah.$$Okay.$$I think those things just, you just breathe long enough you get them. I, I attach no significance to those things at all.$$Okay. So when you look back at your stint at NASA, what are you the most proud of?$$High-speed civil transport, that technology, fascinating stuff, fascinating stuff.$$Okay, okay. Now--$$There's something else too.$$Okay.$$Most Americans know of the Russia-U.S. Space Treaty. At the same time that was developed there was a treaty or an agreement on aeronautics okay? So a group of us went to Moscow [Russia] several times to develop the document that Chernomyrdin [Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin] on the Russian side and Vice President [Al] Gore on the U.S. side signed, so-called agreement in aeronautics, a similar one in space, okay?$$Okay, so this is signed by Al Gore the vice president?$$Right and the vice premier Chernomyrdin of, for Russia.$$Okay.$$Okay, so I led that delegation. A member of that delegation was Woodrow Whitlow and many others as well, but that was an interesting, exciting time, couldn't leave the hotels at night. We were certain our bags were always searched when we left, riots on the Moscow subway. In the early 90s [1990]s, they just had collapsed the Soviet Union so you saw abject poverty in Russia, I mean unbelievable poverty, buildings with holes in them, government buildings, no toilets, no heat in the winter.$$Yeah, that's really critical in Russia.$$Oh goodness, yes. We were in meetings all day with overcoats on and gloves.$$In a government facility?$$Yeah, this is (Saugi?) [ph.], that's--this was their corresponding, this was their facility corresponding to our Tullahoma [Tennessee]. We have AEDC, the Arnold Engineering Development Center, the world's largest aerospace test facility, they had something called (Saugi?), comparable with no heat, holes in the walls, grass never cut.$$Yeah.$$That was Russia in the early 90s [1990s]. Not like that now but they had a really down period man. We were told to do this by the way, to develop this agreement not by NASA but by the State Department because they didn't want the Russian scientists to find their way to Iran or North Korea or some other place that would cause trouble later.