Wearing his navy blue jumpsuit decorated with patches representing each of his space missions, astronaut Bernard Harris spoke to students at Austin’s San Miguel School last Friday about his life’s dream to travel “beyond the stars.”
The event was the fifth stop on the national “The Dream Tour,” sponsored by ExxonMobil. The tour is part of a partnership between the oil company and the astronaut’s own Harris Foundation, which invests in recreational and educational programs for children age 5 to 17.
Harris, 53, is the first black astronaut to walk in space, having performed work outside the shuttle during a space flight on Feb. 9, 1995. During the program at San Miguel-Gary Comer Campus, 819 N. Leamington, the Temple, Texas native delved into his humble upbringing.
“My parents did what they could but money was certainly tight,” Harris said. “My dad didn’t have his high school diploma and my mother was a college graduate, so there were always issues with finances because my dad could not maintain employment.”
Harris’ parents eventually divorced in 1962 when he was 6 years old. Soon after, he became increasingly interested in traveling to space, even though America’s first successful moon landing was still seven years away.
“I wanted to learn as much as I could about science and astronomy,” said Harris. “Then when the first moon landing occurred when I was 13, I looked at those astronauts and said, ‘If they can do it, so can I.'”
Harris trained as a flight surgeon and joined NASA in 1991. By 1995, he was aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery making history.
“It was certainly a proud moment for me,” said Harris. “Shortly thereafter, I received a call from the president, who at the time was President [Bill] Clinton, congratulating me. It just made me think of the men who inspired me as a kid, like Ed White (first American to spacewalk) and Buzz Aldrin.”
Harris is actually one of only 50 individuals to spacewalk and one of 15 blacks to ever become involved with the NASA space program. Harris added that with the racial make-up of the country becoming more diverse the need for minority students to become engaged in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields of study will only increase.
“There is not a career that you can get in where at least one of these four fields would not be put to use. As the country changes we need that next generation of engineers, medical researchers and physicist to carry the torch,” he said. “I think mentoring is the key. I looked at the first NASA astronauts arriving at a place thought impossible only a few years earlier. It made me realize anything was possible if you are committed to your goal. This is what inspires me still.”
Harris, a married father of one daughter, did not limit his interest of flight to just space. He is also a licensed private pilot.
“I think I just like being high off the ground,” he said. “Even when I stay at hotels, I want to get a room on the top floor.”
San Miguel fifth grade student Jalen Williams said the presentation was enlightening and paralleled his interest in becoming a scientist.
“I really like science and when I saw [Dr.] Harris talk about being a kid interested in science, it made me think I can do it to.”