2017 Business Leaders of the Year | Joseph Duda Leadership Award

For some, “if only” or “I might have been” can describe the aspirational journey they could have taken, but for Winston Scott, his career has been about dreams that became realities. For this former fighter pilot and retired Navy captain, who went from flying supersonic jets to become one of America’s Space Shuttle astronauts, that journey continues. Today, as the senior vice president of External Relations & Economic Development at Florida Institute of Technology and the recent chair of the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast, he inspires the dreams of both individuals and communities.

With his characteristic smile and gracious demeanor, Scott recalled his experience growing up in Miami. “The only college graduates or professionals I was exposed to were my teachers at school or the doctors I saw when I was sick,” he said. “The only engineers I knew about drove trains.”

For Scott, college was where you went to perfect something you were already good at (which for him was music), not to discover opportunities you were not aware of, but his experience at Florida State University opened up prospects he never anticipated.

Like any good jazz musician, he knew how to improvise, and he learned to apply that improvisation to life. Recruiters in the Navy considered him a “Golden Find” when he walked into the recruiting office to inquire about furthering his education through Officer Candidate School and then aced the entrance exams.

What followed was a distinguished career, first as a helicopter pilot, then as a fighter pilot and next as a research and development/testing and evaluation aeronautical duty officer. It was a dinner conversation that led him to consider being an astronaut as a future career track. “I decided to apply one time only,” he said. “If I was selected, great; if not, that was okay.”

At each stage of the vetting process, he was thrilled just to be considered and continued pondering other options while the selection process progressed. From more than 3,000 viable candidates, he was one of 19 selected. As an astronaut, he flew two missions — STS-72 Endeavour in 1996 and STS-87 Columbia in 1997. He logged a total of more than 24 days in space, including three spacewalks totaling over 19 hours.

Scott’s more terrestrial career has taken off with almost as much energy as the one he had earlier in life. For several years, he directed the Florida Space Authority, the predecessor of Space Florida, and then he came to FIT.

It was a critical time for this community. FIT was positioning itself as a leading research university, and Brevard County was looking for ways to diversify its economic base. That, of course, is another story of innovation and improvisation that Scott helped lead. The airport needed the kind of research data Florida Tech could provide to make a sound socio-economic case to prospective businesses interested in relocating to the area. Working with the EDC, it began to draw in companies from across the country and around the world. So as manned space from the area was temporarily grounded, the aeronautics industry emerged as a leading sector.

On any given day, Scott can be found discussing the area’s economic potential or talking to students of all ages about the wonder and possibilities life can hold. Ever the evangelist for space travel and exploration, he said in his book, Reflections From Earth Orbit, “People often ask if I would go into space again. I never hesitate to answer ‘Yes.’ The benefits of going into space far exceed the risks. I believe it’s important that humans continue to reach and to grow. It’s only through exploration and growth in knowledge we’re able to provide a better life for everyone.”