Astronaut Bernard Harris Inspires Students to Soar

UPDATED: February 24, 2011
PUBLISHED: February 24, 2011

Bernard Harris recalls the excitement of NASA-sponsored speaking visits to schools and community centers. “I’d walk in wearing that blue flight suit, and the reaction I got, oh wow….” For a moment, remembering how those boisterous kids would abruptly quit roughhousing and become rapt with attention, the physician-turnedastronaut- turned-businessman is uncharacteristically at a loss for words.

In the electricity of those youthful audiences, Harris knew he was onto something new and important—something galvanizing. Basking in applause, fielding questions from his eager listeners, relating anecdotes, signing autographs and shaking hands, Harris mused, “We can do something with this.”

In time “can” became “must,” because Harris recognized a wealth of untapped human potential. He could not let it go. In the students’ hunger for tales of his exploits, Harris perceived an immediate and pressing need to inspire young Americans.

In 1998, he launched his current passion as head of an eponymous foundation to reach at-risk students from elementary through high school, encouraging them to realize their ambitions through hard work and education. The foundation directly supports programs such as summer science camps, scholarships and outreach to students in public schools. Harris expresses the central message of the Harris Foundation in three words: “Believe in yourself.”

Bernard Harris is living proof of the power of such a simple mantra. His own résumé lists such achievements as medical doctor, qualified jet pilot, flight-experienced NASA astronaut, businessman and venture capitalist, author, father and philanthropist.

Most people who attained a single one of these milestones would call it a career. Not 54-year-old Harris. Whether earthbound or orbiting the planet at 17,000 miles an hour, he never slows down.

Harris did not have moneyed origins. His mother, a single parent, taught public school on a Navajo reservation. Even today a quick drive through “the res” reveals striking poverty; during any half-hour, local radio stations play public service announcements aimed at curbing alcoholism and suicide.

But Harris’s keenest recollection of life on the reservation is “the richness of tribal culture, joining in rain dances and snake dances.” He speaks fondly of the acceptance he experienced in such celebrations, with special admiration for the Navajos’ attachment to the earth. “That contributed to my great love of nature,” fueling Harris’s self-immersion in science.

As a teen, watching the Apollo moonwalkers sparked Harris’s enduring goal to become an astronaut. Harris knew no African- American had yet fl own the NASA skies; he saw films of civil rights protesters sprayed with fire hoses and set upon by huge dogs, and he was well aware some black leaders died for their courage. But he willed himself to disregard any racial obstacles.

Harris’s mother was his foremost advocate, a champion of the belief that one can accomplish anything with perseverance. Although she encouraged her son’s dream, the magnitude of it hit home almost 20 years later, when FBI agents came calling to begin the extensive background checks required in vetting the astronaut candidate.

That visit from men with badges and guns asking about her son came as an unwelcome surprise, as Harris learned in a telephone call that brought the future spacewalker down to Earth fast. “I picked up the phone and Mom goes, ‘Bernard Anthony Harris Jr.?’ ” Harris cringes at the memory, then chuckles. “I was in trouble—ah, that same tone of voice I heard when I took apart Mom’s brand-new bedside clock as a kid to try and see how it worked… and heck no, that clock never went back together!”

Harris quietly kept the embers of his NASA dream alive through high school, college and medical school. Achieving his goal of becoming a physician didn’t dampen his desire to become an astronaut. NASA rejected his first application, however, and Harris was devastated. Instead of giving up, he accepted a ground-based NASA medical position that ultimately opened doors. On his second try, NASA accepted him, and Harris flew two space shuttle missions. In February 1995 he joined the rarest NASA elite as a spacewalker.

After his NASA tenure, Harris sought new challenges in business. He found himself on unequal footing as part of the executive staff of an aerospace company. The transition was “sometimes very painful,” he says. “I knew medicine; I had been immersed in NASA’s culture, but I was unprepared for business. Everybody at the company spoke a different language.” Harris’s solution? He went back to school and earned an MBA.

Today, in addition to his work with the foundation, Harris is president of Vesalius Ventures, a venture capital fi rm he founded that invests in new to mid-stage healthcare technologies and companies.

He co-authored his memoir, Dream Walker: A Journey of Achievement and Inspiration, released last fall.

What spurs Harris to excellence? When pressed on this point, he speaks quietly, with no trace of ego: “It’s not competitiveness. I’m not out to beat anybody. I just do my best. The fields I have chosen happen to be areas of expertise people admire.”

Despite Harris’s utter lack of hubris, he takes justifiable pride in his accomplishments, referring to his NASA career as “fulfilling my extraterrestrial mission. My terrestrial mission with the foundation is an investment in the future to help individuals and communities reach their full potential.”

The indices of the Harris Foundation’s success may be less headline-grabbing than spacewalking, but they are significant. On this topic, fresh excitement creeps into Harris’s voice. He especially enjoys direct interaction with his target audience. “I visit schools as often as I can, beginning with elementary students. That’s a lot of fun. And we follow the progress of all our students closely. More than 90 percent of them go on to college. The number of our summer science camps stands at 30 and growing. Overall, we have reached more than 38,000 students.”

Such a philanthropic enterprise involves the dedication of legions. Harris is quick to credit his staff. Just like a NASA mission, where ground-based team members outnumber the flight crew by several orders of magnitude, Harris depends on his people so that he may devote full attention to his own duties. Part of the long-range plan is to make sure the Harris Foundation thrives well beyond the lifetime of its namesake.

Operating and enduring requires plenty of cash, too. “Among many other donors, we enjoy generous support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Exxon-Mobil,” Harris says. “If part of our funding comes from the world’s largest corporation, I think we’re doing all right.”

For Harris, “doing all right” means he has just begun. His success takes disciplined habits. In his personal routine, Harris prefers to retire nightly around 10, rising before most of the world at 5 a.m. to think and read publications such as Daily Word, USA Today, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. On alternate days he exercises by running or working out in a gym. “Pushing my body helps me stay focused,” Harris says.

But how and when does this human dynamo take a real break? “I love to travel. I cherish going way out into the open. Places like Montana—riding horses, getting away from the computer and the cell phone for a while—it really clears my head.”

Big sky, big world, big dreams made reality. Bernard Harris knows all of these firsthand.

He has gazed on the blue-and-white marvel of this whole planet from a uniquely privileged perspective, returning home to energize young people to follow his example—and daring them to surpass his accomplishments.

Does Harris view himself as a role model? The answer is immediate. “Without a doubt. I do not shy away from that. I have a stake in the world.”