For Harris, More Than 'One Small Step For Man'

Forty years ago, the astronauts on board Apollo 11 made history when they landed on the moon. Dr. Bernard Harris watched the moon landing on television as a teenager and was inspired to pursue a career as an astronaut. In 1995, he became the first African-American to walk in space. The trailblazer talks about being in orbit and his work to persuade young minorities to reach for the stars — literally.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we seek out those with wisdom to impart from a lifetime of accomplishment. Today, a man who reached for the stars, and is now helping others to do the same. Forty years ago today, America was captivated as Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission.

Mr. NEIL ARMSTRONG (Astronaut): That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

MARTIN: Bernard Harris was only 13 years old when he watched those small steps, but at that moment he knew he wanted to become an astronaut. Dr. Harris went on to become a flight surgeon. And in 1995, he also became the first African-American to walk in space. Today, he heads the Harris Foundation. That's a nonprofit organization that supports science education and other programs for youth. And he joins us now in our studios in Washington. Dr. Harris, thank you so much for stopping by.

Dr. BERNARD HARRIS (Founder, Harris Foundation): Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So, what was it about that moon walk that made such an impression on you, the moon landing? I mean, obviously, we all watched it. Those of us who were around back then, like, wow. But most of us didn't take the next step to thinking, okay, I'm going to do that, too. What do you think made such a big impression?

Dr. HARRIS: Well, you know, my love for space started before because I got the chance to watch, you know, the early programs, the Gemini program, Mercury program, leading up to the Apollo program. So I was kind of already, you know, into science and into space science in particular. I also like to say, I was also into science fiction too, an original Trekkie. So, as you said, 1969, when the guys landed on the moon, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and I saw that, something changed inside of me that said, you know what, that looks like something fun and exciting and I want to do it. I want to be just like them.

MARTIN: But there are those who would say, you can't be what you can't see. And for you, if that had been true, you wouldn't be where you are now. So, what do you think it is that allowed you to make the leap from those three men to you and to say, I can do that?

Dr. HARRIS: Now, you know, I'm African-American. When I looked at those guys going into space they were nobody, at least visibly, that looked like me. I subsequent found out that there were certainly African-Americans, Hispanics, all races that are involved, including women who were working in the program but just behind the scenes.

MARTIN: Eventually.

Dr. HARRIS: Eventually, you got it. And so, it did take a leap of faith on my part to say that I was going to, you know, follow in their footsteps.

MARTIN: Speaking of a leap of faith, what's it like to walk in space?

Dr. HARRIS: Oh, that is the ultimate leap. You know, as an astronaut, one of the things we want to do is climb on board that space shuttle and be catapulted into space at ungodly speeds, around 18,000 miles an hour. And…

MARTIN: No, I think some of us just want to get there…

Dr. HARRIS: Really?

MARTIN: I'm not sure all of us like the catapulted at 18,000 miles. I'm not sure that's the part that we're looking at.

Dr. HARRIS: But you miss all the fun, you miss that fun part.

MARTIN: I'll take your word for it but…

Dr. HARRIS: But then, you know, getting out and walking in space is the ultimate. And very few people got a chance to do that. And I was very lucky in my second flight to do that.

MARTIN: What's it like?

Dr. HARRIS: Wonderful. Well, let's see - imagine yourself donning a 350-pound suit, of course, it doesn't weigh anything in space. And opening up the hatch and the hatch facing the Earth. The first thing you see is just a sudden movement, almost like looking through a telescope toward the Earth. The other sensation you have when you're leaving the safety of the spacecraft is that you feel like you're going to be pulled down by gravity, although it doesn't really make sense, you know, but your mind gets tricked.

But once we get out there, it is amazing. It's like stepping out on your porch or stepping out on a vista like the Grand Canyon and looking outside, you know, and it's hard to describe. When you're looking out, I mean, you're in the house and looking out of the window, right? You only see a few things, a certain field of view. When you put on a spacesuit and go outside, it's like you're standing outside and you can look around and it's pretty amazing.

MARTIN: Is it dark?

Dr. HARRIS: It is. It depends on what time of day it is. And of course at 18,000 miles an hour we have day and night every 45 minutes. So we go around the world every 90 minutes. So during the day of course it's extremely bright and hot, and at night when the Earth is blocking the rays of the sun, you actually see light from the Earth, and of course, the stars appear, and it is pretty amazing to see this sea of stars totally around you.

MARTIN: Do you feel free?

Dr. HARRIS: I think you do. I have to say that this event, you do - give you great sense of freedom physically but also spiritually, because I got a chance to see how we're all connected to this thing called a universe.

MARTIN: Does it change the way you deal with other people?

Dr. HARRIS: I think most astronauts, when we go into space and come back, we have more sense of the world. As I like to say, we go up as United States astronauts, but we come back as world astronauts because it gives you such a broad perspective on the Earth.

MARTIN: How do you deal with life ever after, after that kind of a peak and rare experience? And then you got to come back down here with the rest of us.

Dr. HARRIS: That's right, that's right. Well, you know, my extraterrestrial mission was to go in space and do all those things I did as a medical doctor and as a, you know, crew medical officer and payload commander and space walker. And now my terrestrial mission is turning that experience into real live experiences for the young people in this country.

MARTIN: And speaking of which, you established the Harris Foundation, which we spoke about, and you founded the Summer Science Camp in 1994. This initiative has grown to a national program. It reaches some 1,500 students in 30 universities around the country, and we just have a piece of tape from one of the students that attended the science camp at Howard University, and here it is.

Mr. JOSHUA HOUSE(ph): My name is Joshua House, and I am 11 years old. I think I want to become a rocket scientist because I like rockets and I like how when they first go up to the moon, it's like this big explosion with all the fire, and I really like that.

MARTIN: Do you find that the kids are as excited about it as they were when you were growing up?

Dr. HARRIS: Oh, I wish you could go with us to some of our programs. One of my favorite things to do, on my summer vacation, is going around to all the camps, as many of the camps as I can, and interface with these young people with bright minds. And they are just as excited as I was. I think even more excited, particularly for the minority students, for me to walk in and to show them that, hey, look, he looks like me, and he's an astronaut. And look at all the things that he has done.

And I think there is that level of excitement about the space program, but then when you bring in for girls a female astronaut that comes in and talks about or, as we have, brought in rocket scientists, female rocket scientists, minority rocket scientists that come in and talk to young people, it just expands their mind to the infinite possibilities that are there.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Dr. Bernard Harris. He is the first African-American to walk in space, and now he's heavily involved in science education, trying to encourage more kids to get involved in science and math.

What about the rest of the country, though? As you know, of course, there are plans to decommission the International Space Station in 2015. Over the years, there's a sense that we're not as invested in the space program as we have been in the past. Why is it valuable? If you could just make the argument.

Dr. HARRIS: Well, the argument is twofold. One is that it's inevitable. We're going to do it. We as human beings have this need to explore. That's how we have managed to migrate all over this world, but let's talk about present time. The space program has been responsible for a lot of technology innovations and also pushing technology. Now, let me also answer another question you have to answer. A lot of people say, well, we've spent a lot of money in space. You know, we take this probe, and it costs multi-millions of dollars, and we send it off to Mars, and we don't get anything out of that.

I say, well, do you think that those millions of dollars were spent, did we put them in the spaceship and send them to Mars? No, the result is that million dollars are in the pockets of people right here on Earth, the workers, the material that was necessary to build it got paid to some company. So we are really part of the ecosystem, the United States technology ecosystem of the United States and, in fact, the world.

MARTIN: And let's not forget Tang.

Dr. HARRIS: Well, you can't forget that.

MARTIN: I'm dating myself. I'm dating myself by talking about Tang.

Dr. HARRIS: Do you realize - I didn't know this until I became an astronaut that we actually still drink Tang.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You have to explain that because I'm sure a lot of the students in your summer program have no idea what we're talking about.

Dr. HARRIS: They probably don't. They probably don't. When I was growing up, there was a drink called Tang, and it was advertised as the drink that the astronauts drink. And I think that part of the reason I became an astronaut is because I wanted to drink more Tang. I mean, I thought that drinking more Tang would allow me to become an astronaut. You know what? It might have worked. But now, Tang was orange-flavored back in the day, and now it comes in many different flavors.

MARTIN: Okay, well, we should probably just pretend we just discovered that, right? Because now everybody knows, you know, how old we are. So finally, we always like to end our conversations this way. Do you have some wisdom to share, perhaps to a younger you?

Dr. HARRIS: I guess that the wisdom that I would give to young people would come about from my experience of growing up in modest beginning and early on struggling and then eventually, with the help of my mother, who was an educator, showed me the value of education, how important that was. And if you want to get out of your situation, no matter what that situation is, education is the key.

I always tell kids that I want you to think about being better tomorrow than you are today. And what that means is that if you adhere to that, every day you're going to grow. And if you then apply the gaining of that knowledge, you're going to expand your knowledge every day, and over time, you're just going to grow and grow. And as you grow, you'll be exposed to more things.

It is important in this day and age in the United States that our kids get involved in math and science education. It is the key. It is the thing that's going to make us competitive and help us to remain competitive with the rest of the world. I have been so fortunate to be in the position to go into space and now come back and have this mission. So it is - what can I say? I've had a blessed life, and I want to pass that blessing on.

MARTIN: Dr. Bernard Harris is the first African-American to walk in space. He's also the founder of the Harris Foundation, supporting children's education in math and science. And he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C., studio on a visit to Washington. We thank you so much.

Dr. HARRIS: You're welcome.

MARTIN: In another milestone, General Charles Bolden, Jr., was confirmed last week as the 12th administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA. The Columbia, South Carolina native, a former Marine Corps major general, is the first African-American to hold this position.

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