Astronaut Inspires Inner-city Teens

Hometown Heroes, People
on January 13, 2011
Ed Lallo Dr. Bernard Harris at Houston’s Johnson Space Center.

Wearing the blue jumpsuit of a NASA astronaut, Dr. Bernard Harris smiles with satisfaction as hundreds of hands shoot skyward, responding to his request for two volunteers from among a thousand adolescents packed into the auditorium at Scotlandville Magnet High School in Baton Rouge, La.

Soon, a pair of wannabe astronauts joins him on stage where—lying on their backs with their knees in the air—they are buckled into genuine space shuttle seats brought to Baton Rouge to simulate an extraterrestrial journey.

"Five, four, three, two, one, liftoff!" says Harris, 54, leading the teens in a spirited countdown. Suddenly, an onstage screen shows the image of a massive space shuttle rumbling toward blastoff—complete with simulated smoke swirling through the air and the thunderous sounds of rocket engines igniting. One student passenger yelps amid the excitement.

"That gives you an idea of what it's like to leave Earth," Harris says with a chuckle.

Harris speaks from experience. A member of NASA's 13th class of astronauts, the physician, scientist and businessman is a veteran of two space shuttle flights, during which he logged more than 438 hours and 7.2 million miles. On Feb. 9, 1995, he became the world's first African-American to walk in space, dangling 250 miles above the Earth from a robotic arm attached to the orbiter Discovery.

"When you're up there, you get to see the sun rise and set every 45 minutes," he tells the students. "It's pretty awesome. And remember, I got there because of my education."

Seeds of inspiration
Calling himself a "dreamer who believes nothing is impossible," Harris was born into poverty in Temple, Texas (pop. 54,514), and grew up with two siblings in a household headed by his mother in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Living today in Houston, Texas, he takes his Dream Tour across America to encourage teens living in the kinds of inner-city neighborhoods where he started out.

His message: Dream big, work hard and cherish your mentors.

"Believe in those who believe in you," says Harris, pointing to the teachers standing along the auditorium aisles in Baton Rouge. "Take advantage of the teachers and principals and parents who are responsible for your being here."

For Harris, his first mentors were the devoted, nurturing women in his family.

His great-grandmother, Lizzie "Honey" Emanuel, was the granddaughter of slaves and a pillar of Oakwood, Texas, where she managed her farm after her husband died. "I saw at an early age what hard work could do," Harris says. "And even though my great-grandmother didn't have much schooling, she considered education very important. Nearly everyone in the following generations had a college degree."

His mother, Gussie Emanuel Harris, earned her bachelor's degree in home economics and worked as a cook in a restaurant in Waco, Texas, until landing a teaching job on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona and New Mexico.

"I was in an entirely different culture with people of different backgrounds, and we all had to learn to play together," recalls Harris, who lived near the reservation for eight years. "I learned from the Navajo to love the Earth and nature and realized that we are all part of a larger universe."

A vision for success
Family and teachers encouraged Harris' natural interest in science, and at age 13, his ultimate dream crystallized while watching history on his family's black-and-white television set in Tohatchi, N.M. (pop. 1, 037). "In 1969, I saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon," he says. "I decided that I wanted to be an astronaut myself, and that I wasn't going to let anything get in my way."

Nothing did.

Inspired to pursue medicine by Dr. Frank Bryant, his family doctor in San Antonio, Texas, Harris loaded up on math and science classes during high school. His circle of heroes expanded from Armstrong and Aldrin to include Dr. Joseph Kerwin, the first American physician to travel in space. "They were role models from afar," Harris says. "They didn't know me, but I knew everything about them."

After studying biology at the University of Houston, he graduated from Texas Tech's School of Medicine in 1982 and completed his residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where another mentor, Dr. Joseph Combs, suggested that he specialize in an aspect of medicine in which NASA needed expertise. Winning a National Research Council Fellowship, he studied osteoporosis, a potential problem for space travelers.

In 1990, Harris was among 23 people chosen from 6,000 applicants for NASA's elite astronaut training program. During his first flight in 1993 aboard the space shuttle Columbia, Harris was a mission specialist and studied the impact of zero gravity on the human body. Two years later, he was a payload commander of the Discovery flight, during which he and British astronaut Michael Foale took their historic five-hour stroll in outer space.

Giving back
Ready for a new challenge, Harris left NASA in 1996 to explore the world of entrepreneurship. He earned a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Houston and started Vesalius Ventures, a firm that invests in health care technologies and companies.

In 1998, he established the Harris Foundation "as a means to give back" by supporting math and science education initiatives and crime prevention programs for America's youth. The seeds for the foundation were planted three years earlier while he worked at NASA and spoke to students on juvenile probation in Houston. He was struck by how many seemed without purpose, adrift in hopelessness.

Launching his Dream Tour in 2008 at a San Antonio middle school named after him, he since has spoken to thousands of students in more than 30 cities, and with the support of ExxonMobil conducts summer science camps at 30 college campuses across America where mostly inner-city students study math, science and technology.

"We shoot off rockets, make solar cars, dissect sheep eyes, and write computer programs to operate robots. The kids love it," says Wayne Trail, a physics professor who directs the summer science camp at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford.

Harris is an inspiration for the campers, says Trail, who adds: "Science and math are often perceived as too difficult, but when he stands there and talks about it, these kids can't help but think they can excel in these areas, too."

Harris says many youngsters don't have voices of encouragement in their lives.

"I'm here to remind you that geeks—the people with knowledge and education—rule the world," Harris tells the Baton Rouge students. "If someone teases you about being smart, look them in the eye and say, 'Someday, you're going to be working for me.'"

Listening in the auditorium is eighth-grader Tanayri Rodriguez, who afterward says her encounter with Harris has her rethinking her career plan to work in a hair salon.

"Maybe a marine biologist!" she says. "I'd like to go down to the bottom of the ocean and see if I can find something new there."