Harris, Bernard A.

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Bernard A. Harris

Astronaut, scientist

The first African American astronaut to walk in space, Bernard A. Harris, born on June 26, 1956 in Temple, Texas to Gussie and Bernard A. Harris Sr., was the first of three children. Bernard's parents divorced when he was very young. His mother moved with her children to San Antonio, a large city plagued with drugs and violence. When Harris was about seven, his mother found work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The family moved again, first to Arizona and then to New Mexico, into the heart of the Navajo Indian Reservation. The Harrises were one of two black families on the reservation. At first the diverse groups of children (black, Native American, white, and Mexican) exchanged insults, but after a few weeks of becoming accustomed to each other, they became friends. When the children got older, they enjoyed going on hiking excursions in the mountains, which helped fuel Harris's desire for explo-ration. Childhood experiences living among different ethnic groups taught Harris to respect the diverse cultures in the United States.

Harris moved back to Texas to attend Sam Houston High School in San Antonio. There his fascination for space grew. He was captivated by NASA's space flights, especially the 1969 flight in which Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Harris drew rocket ships in his notebooks and became an early "Trekkie," a nickname for ardent fans of television's science-fiction program, Star Trek. Although Harris was enamored with space, he was unsure of the career path he would take when he graduated from high school in 1974. Harris then attended the University of Houston where he received a B.S. in biology in 1978. Interested in medicine, he entered the Texas Tech University School of Medicine. As his summer job, Harris played the saxophone in a group called Purple Haze (named from the Jimi Hendrix song). He also played in the band at football games during the school year. In 1982, he earned his M.D., and by 1985, he had completed a three-year residency in internal medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

At the Mayo Clinic, Joseph Combs, a rheumatologist, spoke about the obstacles of sending the first man into space, which rekindled Harris's interest in space. It was then that he realized that the combination of space and medicine suited him. Harris went to the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, where he completed a National Research Council Fellowship. At Ames, he conducted research in the field of musculoskeletal physiology and disuse osteoporosis. He completed his fellowship in 1987 and joined the NASA Johnson Space Center as a clinical scientist and flight surgeon with the Medical Science Division. His duties as the project manager of the Exercise Countermeasures Project included conducting clinical investigations of space adaptation and developing countermeasures for extended duration space flight. The studies included examining ways to offset the deconditioning of body tissues that occurs in space and may result in muscular atrophy, smaller heart, and bone absorption. The same year, he applied for the astronaut-training program, but he was not selected.

Receives Astronaut Status

Harris reapplied for the astronaut-training program. In September 1989, Harris was selected as one of 106 astronaut candidates selected from a pool of 2,500 applicants. The year-long training program included intellectual exercises as well as rigorous physical activities. His official astronaut status was conferred in July 1991, making him eligible to be assigned as a mission specialist on future space shuttle crews. While he waited to join a space shuttle mission, he helped design exercise equipment and routines for astronauts who remain in space for long periods of time and are at risk for musculoskeletal weakness. The same year, Harris married Sandra Fay Lewis, a systems analyst. On August 3, 1992, Harris and his wife became the proud parents of Brooke Alexandria.


Born in Temple, Texas on June 26
Graduates from Sam Houston High School in San Antonio, Texas
Earns B.S. in biology from University of Houston
Earns M.D. from Texas Tech University
Completes residency in internal medicine at Mayo Clinic
Trains as flight surgeon at the Aerospace School of Medicine, Brooks Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas
Becomes a NASA astronaut; assigned as mission specialist for STS-55; marries
Serves as payload manager aboard STS-63, February 2 to 11
Leaves NASA and becomes chief scientist and vice-president of Science and Health Services

By mid-July 1992, Harris began serving as mission specialist aboard the Columbia, flight STS-55, on a trip that lasted from April 26 to May 6, 1993. It was a collaborative effort between Germany and the United States. During the mission, Harris and Hans W. Shlegel of Germany conducted scientific experiments using a wall-mounted laboratory. Numerous medical experiments were conducted, including growing tiny cells to study how the lack of gravity would affect them. As busy as he was, Harris made note of the speed of the shuttle and the beauty of colors of the atmosphere. During this flight, Harris logged over 239 hours and 4,164,183 miles in space.

First African American Astronaut to Walk in Space

Harris's next mission was aboard the space shuttle Discovery, flight STS-63. During the trip (February 2-11, 1995) Harris served as the payload commander. This trip was the first flight in the new collaboration between Russia and the United States. On February 9, Harris made history when he became the first African American to perform an extra vehicular activity, which means he walked in space. Harris and C. Michael Foale, an astrophysicist, stepped out to see if their spacesuits could handle temperatures of 90 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Other experiments were conducted, but their space walk had to be cut short by twenty-five minutes because the astronaut's gloves were not insulated well enough and both astronauts were beginning to exceed the frostbite safety limits that had been set by NASA. During this visit to space, Harris had brought along a Navajo flag to pay tribute to the diverse U.S. cultures.

Harris retired from NASA in April 1996. Throughout his career there, he logged 438 hours and flew over 6 million miles in space. After retiring, he joined Spacehab Incorporated, a private corporation that facilitates the commercial use of space by providing access to crew-tended microgravity research environments. Harris moved to Spacehab's Houston office, where he served as vice president and chief scientist.

Harris, a veteran of two space flights, will always be remembered for being the first African American to walk in space. He serves as a role model for all Americans for his contributions to space and medicine.



Kaplan, Betty Gubert, Miriam Sawyer, and Caroline M. Fannin. Distinguished African Americans in Aviation and Space Science. Westport, Conn.: Oryx Press, 2002.

Phelps, J. Alfred. They Had a Dream: The Story of African-American Astronauts. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1994.


Coleman, Dana. "Reach for the Stars: In the NASA Space Shuttle and Space Station Programs." Afro-American Red Star (13 September 1997): A6.

Stone, Sherry. "Black Astronaut Made History During Space Shuttle Mission." Philadelphia Tribune (13 February 1996): 3-J.


National Aeronautics and Space Administration: Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. "Astronaut Bio: Bernard Harris 1/99.": 1-2. http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/harris.html (Accessed 3 December 2004).

                                      Sharon McGee

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