MICHEL MARTIN, host: The space shuttle Atlantis shot into orbit on Friday on the last mission of NASA's 30-year-old shuttle program.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE LAUNCH) All three engines up and burning. Two, one, zero and lift off. The final lift off of Atlantis on the shoulders of the space shuttle, America will continue the dream.
MARTIN: The shuttle has been circling the globe since Friday on a 12-day mission and this week TELL ME MORE is taking a look at some of the groundbreaking highlights of the shuttle program in our series Flying High: First in Their Class.
And we are going to start by taking you back to another shuttle launch in April of 1993.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE LAUNCH)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...four, three, two, one. Solid rocket ignition. And lift off. Lift off of Columbia on a voyage to the future.
MARTIN: That was the sound of the first space flight for mission specialist Dr. Bernard Harris. But it would not be his last. A little less than two years later, Dr. Harris prepped for his next mission. It was to be a little shorter in duration, but he would also travel a great distance in another way. He became the first African-American to walk in space. He talked to CNN just ahead of the mission.
(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)
Dr. BERNARD HARRIS: I hope that youngsters and oldsters, particularly minorities that see me do this will see this as a sort of a signal that if he can do that, then I can do that.
MARTIN: It was just one of the first on that mission. It was also the first shuttle mission to be piloted by a woman, Eileen Collins, now retired from the Air Force. It was also the first U.S. trip to the Russian Mir space station, a window into the possibilities of international collaboration in space.
STS-63 on Shuttle Discovery touched down eight days later.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Roger. Will stop Discovery. Welcome home and congratulations on an outstanding mission. Y'all did a terrific job up there.
MARTIN: That happened to be Dr. Harris' last trip into space. He's since left NASA. He's founded an educational nonprofit organization, the Harris Foundation, become a venture capitalist and he's also a physician. And Dr. Bernard Harris is with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.
HARRIS: Great to be here.
MARTIN: Just wanted to ask, what are your thoughts as you see the shuttle program wind down?
HARRIS: Well, you know, it's kind of bittersweet. The shuttle program was the program that got me both my flights and allowed me to accomplish some wonderful feats and to see the beautiful Earth from space. And so with its retirement I am a little sad. But I'm also pretty excited about what the future holds for the space program.
MARTIN: Well, tell me why. Because one of the things that some people have been talking about is that one of the concerns that they have is they don't feel that there's enough coming down the pike. For example, I'll play a short clip from an interview we did last week with the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He's also the director of New York's Hayden Planetarium.
He's critical of the fact that NASA and the United States are now without a means for putting men and women into space. And he's also critical of the fact that the U.S. isn't pushing manned spacecraft beyond low Earth orbit. I'll just play a short clip from that conversation.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: I can tell you that apathy sets quickly when your journeys in space do not extend the frontier. If being on the shuttle means you're boldly going where hundreds have gone before, you are not extending the frontier. There's nothing for the press to talk about. If you go back to the Gemini era and into Apollo, every next mission had something new and different going on in it because it was extending a frontier.
MARTIN: You have a different view?
HARRIS: You know, I think I have a similar view, but from a different perspective. I think that what we have accomplished over the 30 years in the shuttle program has been remarkable. It allowed us now have permanent access into low Earth orbit. And that's what the whole program was all about.
At the same time, it is NASA's mission to reach beyond lower Earth orbit and go to the moon and to near Earth asteroids and possibly even to Mars. That is still on the table. And, you know, what I sense, you know, as I travel the country and do interviews similar to this, is that people think that this means the end of the space program. And it really isn't.
It really is a new beginning, where private industry will be involved in this low Earth orbit mission and NASA continues to do this. But then to have the resources to be used to do those greater missions that deGrasse was just talking about.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
We're speaking with Dr. Bernard Harris. He's a physician, a former space shuttle astronaut. He founded the Harris Foundation. That's a nonprofit geared to educational opportunities for young people. We're visiting with people who are connected to the space program as we acknowledge the end of the space shuttle program.
You know, we've talked to you in the past about your personal triumphs and what it meant to be the first African-American in space. I want to talk a little bit more about that. First, as I said, you and your commander on the mission, Colonel Collins, were both firsts, did you ever talk about that?
HARRIS: You know, we actually did not. At the time, we both had objectives. Hers was to have a successful overall mission. And on that mission, I was also the payload commander. So I was not only in charge of doing the spacewalk, but ensuring that the science portion of the mission got done.
MARTIN: So you guys never talked about it, not even afterwards?
HARRIS: Isn't that something? Yeah. You know, I don't want to speak for Eileen, but certainly for me this is not something that I set out to do. You know, I did not say that, you know, I'm going to join the space program so I could become the first African-American to walk in space. No. My dream was to become an astronaut so I can have that experience of space travel and to conduct experiments because I am a scientist, and so that was my goal.
MARTIN: Well, you also mentioned, though, in interview at the time, and also subsequently because, you know, we talked to you about that. The idea of expanding the horizons for people back on Earth and seeing that more was possible. Beyond that, though, you also were a part of the first U.S. mission to the Mir space station, which is the Russian Mir space station. What was the significance of that do you think?
HARRIS: Well, if you recall back in the day, I'm really dating myself here, Russia had gone through a transition and we were just beginning to have better relationships with them. So it was a very interesting time where we were both trying to get to know each other.
But the funny thing, we all were a little concerned about, you know, well, you know, how do they perform? How are they going to be? And I'm sure they had the same question about us. And it turns out that astronauts are astronauts. Or maybe I should say, astronauts are cosmonauts and cosmonauts are astronauts because we all think the same, right?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: How did you figure that out?
HARRIS: And it turned out to be a wonderful mission.
MARTIN: Really? Well, how did you notice that?
HARRIS: Well, in training. We spent half our time training together here in the U.S. on the shuttle, and then we went through the other periods of time over in Russia. So, we got a chance to learn each other's program, each other's systems and work with each other's technicians. And I think it became very apparent very early that this was not going to be a problem.
MARTIN: And everybody likes Coca-Cola, right?
HARRIS: I'm not sure I can follow that.
MARTIN: Well, apparently there was a...
HARRIS: You have to explain that a little bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Well, apparently - what are you talking about? This was your mission. Wasn't there a Coke machine you had in space on that mission? You had the first - what was it, a zero gravity Coke machine?
MARTIN: Or something like that to dispense soft drinks.
HARRIS: That's right. It wasn't on that mission.
MARTIN: Wasn't on that mission.
HARRIS: It wasn't on the Russian mission. It was on my first mission. But we did take up some commercial payloads. And one of those payloads was Coke versus Diet Coke.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HARRIS: But, really, the study was how you could dispense carbonated beverages in space. And we found out that that was almost impossible, if you could imagine. Because it's zero gravity. And so as soon as the carbonation began to expand, you just had a container of foam.
MARTIN: Well, as a physician I would imagine you'd be telling people to drink water anyway, right?
HARRIS: You got it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Well, thank you, Dr. Harris, for taking the time to talk with us. Is there any other thoughts you have about the end of the mission? You said that you were optimistic. Talk a little bit about why.
HARRIS: Yeah. I'm very optimistic because in the past all space programs have been led by government. So usually that means selection of one vehicle that everybody kind of puts their mic behind and resources behind. And now with this notion of privatizing, at least the portion - the low Earth orbit portion - we now have private companies coming in with new ideas and innovations and technologies that I think are going to move us much further ahead than we have ever had before.
When you have free markets driving things, things move a lot faster. As an example, I'll talk about the satellite industry. That was initially all government funded. And nowadays, most of that - those launches for satellites - are done by private companies. So you're going to see the same thing happen for human space flight. And so I'm excited about that opportunity.
MARTIN: Dr. Bernard Harris is a physician. He's a former astronaut. He's a founder of the Harris Foundation. He was kind enough to join us from member station WFYI in Indianapolis where he happens to be traveling on business. If you'd like to hear our previous conversation, our Wisdom Watch with Dr. Harris where he talks about what it's like to walk in space, just go to our website NPR.org, click on the Programs tab and choose TELL ME MORE. Dr. Harris, thank you so much for joining us.
HARRIS: Great to be here. Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.