Interview with Bernard Harris, the 1st African-American spacewalker

Official NASA photo of former astronaut Bernard Harris, the first African-American to perform a spacewalk.
Official NASA photo of former astronaut Bernard Harris, the first African-American to perform a spacewalk. (Image credit: NASA)

Bernard Harris is a spaceflight pioneer.

Harris was part of NASA's 13th astronaut class, which the agency selected in 1990. He became an astronaut in 1991 and flew for the first time two years later, racking up 10 days off Earth on the space shuttle Columbia's STS-55 mission.

He launched for the second and final time in February 1995, on the STS-63 mission of the shuttle Discovery. It was on this flight that Harris carved his name into the history books: On Feb. 9, he took a lengthy excursion outside Discovery, becoming the first African-American ever to perform a spacewalk.

Related: The most memorable spacewalks of all time in pictures

Harris is a medical doctor, having served as a flight surgeon and clinical scientist at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston before becoming an astronaut. He also earned a master's degree in biomedical sciences in 1996, the same year he retired from the astronaut corps.

The former spacewalker has devoted much of his life and career to helping get people, especially kids, excited about science, engineering, technology and math (STEM), and letting them know that proficiency in those fields can take them far — perhaps all the way to space. For example, he currently serves as leader of business development and fundraising at The National Math and Science Initiative, a Texas-based nonprofit that strives to improve STEM education for students across the U.S. caught up with Harris earlier this month to discuss his astronaut days, NASA's role in helping advance diversity and STEM engagement and how excited he is about the future of spaceflight and exploration.

Astronauts Bernard A. Harris Jr., STS-63 payload commander, (top right) and C. Michael Foale, mission specialist, are ready to egress airlock for an extravehicular activity (EVA) on Feb. 9, 1995.

Astronauts Bernard A. Harris Jr., payload commander of the STS-63 mission of the space shuttle Discovery (top right), and C. Michael Foale, mission specialist, are ready to egress airlock for a spacewalk on Feb. 9, 1995.  (Image credit: NASA/JSC) How well do you think NASA is doing now, in terms of getting lots of different types of folks to space? Has the agency made a lot of progress in astronaut diversity since the days when you were flying?

Bernard Harris: The short answer is yes: I think we've made a lot of progress. But I also think we have a lot more to do in this respect. 

You remember what the original class looked like — all white guys. My class sort of reflected where NASA had really made major strides. In that class was the first woman pilot and commander, Eileen Collins, and Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman. And we had a good mixture of women in general in our class.

Then, a few years later, we brought in three African-American women in one class. Just about every class since, I think, we've had people of color. So I think NASA has made some major strides. But NASA, just like other organizations in this country — if you look at the percentage of people of color, there's still a lot of work to be done. Yeah, and it strikes me that NASA has sort of an outsized responsibility in this regard. They're extremely visible; they're very popular. I don't want to call them a brand, really, but they're recognizable worldwide, and they engage people all over the world. Do you feel the same way — that NASA could be a real driver for change in this arena, especially when we're talking about STEM?

Harris: I think they are; I think they have been. You know, one of our chores as an astronaut — our duties, I should say — is to go out and speak to a variety of diverse communities in this country. That, I feel, is one of the most important parts of our job as astronauts and as general employees of NASA, because, as you said, when people think about leading organizations in this country, NASA is there. You mentioned not calling it a brand — it really is a brand. Just walking through the mall, walking through the airport, people are wearing NASA shirts now. It makes you feel really good and proud to be part of such an organization. We're becoming increasingly polarized as a society, and it strikes me that NASA is one of the few government entities that is still kind of universally accepted, universally liked. There's no left-right split, really, when it comes to NASA, which I think is a big deal. People tend to like NASA, and that can go a long way.

Harris: Yeah, definitely. The other part of your question had to do with the impact on education in this country, particularly STEM education. Again, I can't think of another agency that is as iconic and can have as much of an impact as NASA, because we're in those communities and because to be part of NASA requires expertise and STEM, just by definition. You said that NASA has come a long way, but it can go further still in terms of advancing diversity. Do you have any specific prescriptions or recommendations about how to make this happen? Or is it just kind of continuing along this path of getting more folks in the door who accurately reflect all of the different neighborhoods we have in this country?

Harris: I think it's just being intentional about diversity within the astronaut office, within the agency itself. And as we do that, we elevate those communities. And I like to see leading organizations like NASA make that a priority. NASA has been extremely intentional about telling us that the Artemis 3 astronauts are not going to be two middle-aged white guys — they're going to put a woman and a person of color down on the moon. I think that goes a long way — kids growing up all over this country are thinking, "Oh, wow, I might be able to walk on the moon someday."

Related: NASA's Artemis program: Everything you need to know 

Harris: Yeah, that says a lot. And so I'm really happy that the current administration, and the administration before that, has been intentional about that. 

I always joke when I'm giving talks about the issues that we have on this planet, that if it was seen by an alien viewer, or, as I like to put it, with a God's-eye view, you wouldn't see the differences that we argue about all the time. And again, this is where I think that the agency, and space exploration in general, is making an impact and can make more of an impact going forward. All the astronauts I've talked to have said that looking down on Earth is a transformational experience. You don't see borders; you just see one fragile planet. Does that sum up what you experienced, too? Is the "overview effect" a real thing?

Harris: Yeah, it definitely is a real thing. On my spacewalk, I especially got that view, because we finished up all of the tasks that we were supposed to do. We were out there a little over five hours, and we had just about 40 minutes or so at the end where I could just hang out, as it were, on the end of the robotic arm and just take in that God's-eye view as we're going around the Earth at 17,500 miles an hour. 

I remember looking at the crew and the vehicle below and then looking at the Earth, and then behind that the sea of stars, the universe all around us. In orbital nighttime, you get to take it all in, and I was just amazed. And I would add to all of that, that I felt like this just didn't happen — that there is order to the things within us and around us. I wouldn't consider myself religious but a spiritual person; I came out of a Christian family. And that whole view for me just confirmed my belief in a higher power, that there is indeed something greater than ourselves. Some people call that God, some people call that the universe. And I think when I speak to my scientist friends, some believe the same thing I do — that we only describe what's already here. We may change things, we may create things, but from matter and energy that are already here, and we're working within laws that we had nothing to do with. To me, that's powerful. You're also a doctor, and you've done a lot of medical research into the impacts of spaceflight on the human body. What's your perspective on NASA's plan to send astronauts to the moon for long stays and then eventually to put boots on Mars? Are we on the way toward understanding what we need to do to mitigate the worst of the health impacts that come from radiation and microgravity exposure on long space missions? Do you see those as showstoppers, or do you think we can deal with it?

Harris: I think there are a number of showstoppers, but we are slowly ticking them off. And the more experience that we have on orbit, the more we learn about the body's ability to adapt to that environment, whether it's microgravity or the one-sixth gravity on the moon or the one-third gravity on Mars. Whenever we expose ourselves to that environment, we learn a lot about general physiological systems. That's what we've been doing on the International Space Station, and we've learned quite a lot. 

My area of research was in bone, and bone demineralization as it occurs in space. We lose 1% of bone per month up there, and that has required the development of exercise equipment, which I was involved in early on, prior to becoming an astronaut. Fortunately, we have those modalities now on the International Space Station. And the things that we're learning have applications going both ways, from Earth and to Earth. To me, that's the promise of on-orbit platforms and the promise of life on the moon and on Mars.

The crew of the space shuttle Columbia’s STS-55 mission, which launched on April 26, 1993 and landed on May 6 of that year. Clockwise from top left: Bernard Harris (NASA), Hans Schlegel (DLR), Jerry Ross (NASA), Ulrich Walter (DLR), Charles Precourt (NASA), Steven Nagle (NASA) and Terence Henricks (NASA).

The crew of the space shuttle Columbia’s STS-55 mission, which launched on April 26, 1993 and landed on May 6 of that year. Clockwise from top left: Bernard Harris (NASA), Hans Schlegel (DLR), Jerry Ross (NASA), Ulrich Walter (DLR), Charles Precourt (NASA), Steven Nagle (NASA) and Terence Henricks (NASA).  (Image credit: NASA) The International Space Station is scheduled to be retired at the end of 2030, which isn't that far off. NASA wants to get private space stations lined up to take the ISS' place — do you feel like that's going to be good enough, that there's going to be a relatively seamless handoff to the private outposts run by companies like Axiom Space?

Harris: The short answer is yes. I think it's happening as we speak. We now have commercial crews going to the International Space Station, which is government-led and government-run. 

I can't tell you how many times I get asked, "What happened to NASA?" because it's been overshadowed by all the commercial efforts up there. I have to remind folks that NASA was the organization that actually created the commercialization of space, by seeding a lot of the organizations that are now providing transport for us. We've done what I think has been one of the most important things for long-term space exploration, which is to get private industry involved — not just pay for the private sector to get involved, but have them have skin in the game, too. And that's what's happened. 

If you were to ask me my vision, I think that the first lunar mission may be entirely government-run, but shortly after that, there is going to be private industry involved. Not only low Earth orbit platforms, but perhaps platforms midway to the moon, and then I believe that, ultimately, the lunar base will be a true partnership between government and private industry.

Related: What living on the moon would be like (infographic) Is that the biggest difference between your era and today — how involved private industry is in space exploration?

Harris: There are two big differences from when I came in, in the class of 1990. That class primarily was American-born astronauts. As we started thinking about the international nature of life in space, then we got the International Space Station and all the partnerships. So, now we truly have an international core. 

That is a major difference. And the other one is the one that you just said — having private industry involved. This development of a space economy is real. And it's one of the things that I talk about when I'm talking to audiences these days: All of our communities have a role to play in this space economy. What I don't want to happen is to have a segment of our community, especially in this country, that's left out and not participating in what I think is the next gold rush, or the next industrial revolution. 

I had an extraterrestrial mission, as I like to put it, in the work that I did on orbit. But my terrestrial mission now is to ensure that all communities have access to high-quality STEM education, because all the things that we just talked about, the space economy — its foundation is knowledge in STEM. I want all our communities to have the opportunity to participate, and that requires that we change the pace of STEM. We start with young people taking those STEM courses that are relevant to their future. And then, when they get through that educational process for them to go to technical school or college, to now be able to have STEM-related jobs. I can guarantee you — and I can say this emphatically — that a lot of those jobs are going to be in space. When you look forward to that coming gold rush or industrial revolution, do you feel optimistic about how our country is positioned and how NASA is positioned?

Harris: I think that our country has been leading this whole effort, and so I am excited. I'm excited about what's going to happen over the next 10 to 15 years in space. I think that there's an opportunity to deal with some of the previous issues that might have plagued us as a people as we think about life in space. In my mind, it's a great unifier. What I don't want to see happen is to take these divisions that we have here in this country and elsewhere out into space. You don't need to take those old habits and behaviors. 

If we continue to remind ourselves that we are one people — that we're Earthlings — then this country and this world will be a far better place. And that's what I think the space program's legacy can be for humanity: It's the notion that we are one people.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.  

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.