Dr. Bernard Harris is like many of us who grew up in the 1960s, with dreams and interests inspired by the space race and the Apollo 11 Moon landing. It was a little different for Harris, an African American who was 13 when Neil Armstrong took that one small step.
“It was not only a giant leap for them, but for this little boy to look at that little back and white television and say that he wanted to follow in their footsteps was powerful, because for someone like me, it had never been done before,” Harris explained. “As I looked at who America chose as their right stuff, as you recall there were seven white guys that started that program. There were no minorities, certainly no African Americans, none that I could see out front, and there were no women in the program. Thank God things have changed since that time.”
Harris, who in 1995 became the first African American to walk in space, spoke Feb. 4 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle as part of the museum’s observation of Black History Month and in connection with its Michael P. Anderson Memorial Aerospace Program. Harris told the audience at the museum that he didn’t let the all-white nature of the early space program deter him.
“The lesson for the young folks is that if you have a dream, don’t let what you might see around you that you might think of as an obstacle,” he said. “I would say reverse it and think of it as a challenge. Don’t let that interfere with you accomplishing your dream.”
Harris is big on dreams. He has written a book titled Dream Walker, and he calls dreams the “reality of the future.”
“In order to have a future, you must have a dream,” Harris said. “In order to have a future you must have the ability to see yourself doing whatever it is that you want to do in life.”
Harris is not just a retired astronaut, he’s a scientist and a doctor and a businessman who heads a venture capital firm and established the Harris Foundation to support science, technology, engineering, and math education. Given that background, and the fact that the Anderson program also is focused on education, it wasn’t surprising to hear Harris build a close tie between dreams and education.
Anderson was a Spokane native who died in 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia wrecked. Harris said astronauts know the danger they’re getting into, but carry on.
“At the heart of all of this is this notion that we would rather die doing what we want to do in life and accomplishing a dream than sit around and let life pass us by,” he said.
Harris gets a little agitated when he hears talk about the “end” of the space program.
“We still have the mandate as an agency to go forward; to put people on the Moon, to put people on near earth asteroids, and perhaps put people on Mars,” Harris said. “All of that work is still being done. The only significant change is that the next generation vehicle is going to be done by private industry.”
“The space program is not going away, it’s just beginning,” he added. “I think it’s going to allow us to do things that have not been done before, and we won’t be held hostage by government restraints and budgets.”