Harris takes one big step in black history 25 years ago

Ned Jilton • Feb 19, 2020 at 9:30 PM

Twenty-five years ago this month, Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr. took a big step for black Americans, literally, when he stepped out of space shuttle Discovery and become the first black person to walk in space.

Science fiction and science in general fascinated Harris at a young age. When he told his mother he wanted to be an astronaut, he said she replied, “You can do whatever you want to do.”

In a television interview a few years after his space walk, Harris said, “When I found out I wanted to be an astronaut, I had to figure out can I go to college and be an astronaut? These’s no major in that. So I had to pick some type of science field. So I chose medicine, in part, because I saw an astronaut who was a doctor. So I said OK, I can be a doctor and fly in space too.”

He might have also been inspired by one of his favorite science fiction characters on T.V., Dr. “Bones” McCoy on “Star Trek.”

Harris graduated from the University of Houston in 1978 with a bachelor of science degree in biology before going on to earn a doctorate in medicine from Texas Tech School of Medicine in 1982. He completed his residency in internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic.

Shortly afterward, he became involved in the space program as he completed a National Research Council Fellowship at the NASA Ames Research Center, where he conducted research in the field of musculoskeletal physiology and disuse osteoporosis.

If I read correctly what Google turned up and what NASA’s website says, that’s a study of what happens to your bones and muscles when you don’t use them. Like when an astronaut is weightless in space or someone is confined to a bed or wheelchair on Earth.

In addition to all the above, Harris trained as a flight surgeon at the Aerospace School of Medicine, Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. He joined NASA’s Johnson Space Center as a clinical scientist where he studied space adaptation and the development of countermeasures for extended duration spaceflight.

You would think that someone engaged in so many things would have little time to train to become an astronaut. But Harris was determined and applied not once, but twice, for the astronaut program. In January, 1990, he beat out 6,000 other applicants to become one of the 23 members of that year’s astronaut class. He completed his training and became an astronaut in July 1991.

His first mission was STS-55, during which he rode onboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1993 as part of a multinational crew of five Americans and two Germans. They took into space a reusable German spacelab which the crew staffed in shifts around the clock doing 88 experiments from 11 nations.

Harris’ second mission in space in 1995 was the big moment for him.

On STS-63, Harris was part of another multinational crew of four American, one Briton and one Russian flying on space shuttle Discovery. The mission was to be one of many firsts. The first rendezvous of an American space shuttle with Russia’s space station Mir. The first space shuttle flight piloted by a woman, Eileen Collins. And the first black American and first British-born astronauts to walk in space.

Oh yes, the shuttle also carried the first Coca-Cola dispenser flown in space.

After successfully rendezvousing with Mir, the crew of Discovery activated the SPACEHAB-3 module containing 20 experiments, including some dealing with biotechnology, advanced materials development and technology demonstrations — among which was the Coke machine.

Later the crew deployed into orbit the Shuttle Pointed Autonomous Research Tool for Astronomy, otherwise known as the Spartan-204.

When it came time to recover Spartan-204 on Feb 9, Harris and fellow astronaut Michael Foale donned their spacesuits and stepped out to help retrieve the equipment and to test modifications to NASA spacesuits. Their walk started at 11:56 UTC and finished 4 hours and 39 minutes later after the successful recovery of the Spartan-204.

After the completion of his spacewalk and the return from his second mission in space, Harris received several honors. Among them were the NASA Award of Merit, the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal and the Challenger Award from the Ronald E. McNair Foundation. The Foundation award was named for NASA astronaut Ronald McNair, who was one of the first three black Americans to fly into space but was killed when the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 second into its flight on Jan. 28, 1986.

In an interview sometime after the flight, Harris was asked if the spacewalk changed him as a person.

Harris replied, “I’m a Christian, so I believe in God. And what I like to say is that it reaffirmed my belief in a higher power. There is something here that is responsible for us all being here. Then it’s my responsibility to figure out what my role is to be part of that universe, that grand scheme of things.”

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.