From Trekkie to Space Traveler: Texas Astronaut Inspires Youth to Dream Big
Written by: Rebecca Canfield
“As I exited the hatch, I understood that I was getting an opportunity that few people ever have – to see with my own eyes an unobstructed view of Earth from space, to view the beauty and majesty of God’s creation in an awe-inspiring panorama. In that moment, nothing seemed impossible. There was a sense of freedom and of something that reminded me of the childhood years I’d spent on a Navajo reservation: a oneness with the universe.” Excerpt from Dr. Bernard Harris, Jr.’s book, Dream Walker: A Journey of Achievement and Inspiration.
The year was 1969. A wide-eyed thirteen-year-old Bernard Harris sat in front of a black-and-white television, agog as he watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon. It was a long way from the Tohatchi, New Mexico reservation where he was living, a long way indeed.
“One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong’s radio relayed.
In that instant, a dream was born. It did not matter that he was a child of divorce, in a low-income area of Houston, dreaming of something no African-American had ever done. Obstacles seemed to drift away as he watched history unfold. In that moment, all that mattered was that man had walked on the moon, and if one man could do it, so could he.
“I decided I wanted to be an astronaut myself, and that I wasn’t going to let anything get in my way,” Harris told Kristin Ohlson of American Profiles.
Ever fascinated with the television show Star Trek, and particularly the character “Bones,” Harris’s childhood dream of becoming an astronaut, though to many was outlandish, was encouraged by his mother Gussie, who knew a little something about defying odds herself.
In spite of the popular saying, “The sky is the limit,” Gussie was not even willing to limit her son’s ambitions that far. Wanting her son to believe that he could do absolutely anything, Gussie encouraged Bernard to dream big, and that encouragement propelled him to achieve something astronomical.
Bernard Anthony Harris, Jr. was born on June 26, 1956, in Temple, Texas. His father, Bernard Harris, Sr., was a soldier in the U.S. Army. Originally from Pennsylvania, Bernard, Sr. had met Gussie Emanuel while he was stationed at Fort Hood. The pair fell in love, were married, and lived in Temple until Bernard Sr. left the military and moved the family to Houston.
The marriage brought three children, Bernard Jr., Gillette, and Dennis, but later dissolved when Bernard Jr. was six years old and the pair divorced. It was at that time that Gussie, who had earned a college degree in home economics from Prairie View A&M University, decided to get a teaching job. But teaching jobs for African-American women were hard to come by in the 1960s, and Gussie could not find a job nearby. So she went to teach school on the Navajo Indian Reservation.
Gussie was the strong, adventurous type. She had the strength to leave everything she knew, even her culture and her family. She led her children off into the world of the Navajo Indians, a world about which she knew very little. The gamble, however, paid off, and Gussie’s children soon found themselves loving the beauty of the Navajo land. “That’s probably where I got a little bit of my courage,” Harris said about his mother.
Harris, whose family boasts a long line of formidable women, observed many of his relatives doing things society deemed impossible or improbable, so he quickly developed the mindset that the only thing that limits a person is their fear of stepping out into the unknown and their unwillingness to try something new.
Harris’s great-grandmother, Lizzie “Honey” Emanuel, who was born the granddaughter of slaves, managed her family’s Oakwood, Texas farm alone after her husband died. The family matriarch, Honey was a pillar of the community as well. Her home was one of the places young Bernard loved to visit best.
“It’s a sacred place for me,” Harris said. “When I am reflective, [I like] to go back there. It just settles my mind. There’s just something about being on a piece of soil that’s been passed down for generations… from a time when African-Americans didn’t own land. It just settles me.” Although Honey did not have much of an education, she considered education vitally important. With Honey’s encouragement, nearly all of the following generations went on to earn college degrees, including Gussie.
As Gussie was teaching the Navajo, first in Greasewood, Arizona and later in Tohatchi, New Mexico, Harris was off exploring the mountains around him and learning about new cultures. His love of exploration was born on the reservation where Harris learned about the Navajos’s connection to, love for, and appreciation of the earth. To this day, Harris says that on any vacation, the first thing he wants to do is to go explore.
When Harris was eleven, his mother Gussie met a Temple police officer named Joe Burgess during one of the family’s summers spent in Texas. The pair married, and Joe instantly took to Gussie’s children, raising them as if they were his own. An impactful year for their family, 1967 was the beginning of many big changes for Harris.
In Harris’s teenage years, the family returned to Texas and began living in San Antonio. Harris played the tenor saxophone in a soul music band called The Purple Haze, all the while dreaming of space. He graduated from Sam Houston High School in 1974 and began college at the University of Houston where he received a Bachelor of Science degree. In college, Harris’s economics professor made a very big impression on him. As a result of a class conversation, Harris also began to dream of one day becoming an entrepreneur. Although space would come first, the desire for entrepreneurship that was born during a class debate would never leave.
Harris went on to receive his doctorate at Texas Tech University’s School of Medicine in 1982 after which he began his residency in internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic. Often asked why he studied medicine, Harris explains that there is no “astronaut” major in college and that another dream of his was always to become a doctor. Dr. Frank Bryant, Harris’s family doctor in San Antonio, was one of his heroes growing up. Seeing an African-American doctor was an eye-opening experience for Harris, who learned from Bryant not to limit himself to the bounds of other people’s expectations.
A Skyrocketing Career
In 1985, Harris completed his residency at the Mayo Clinic and applied to NASA. Although he was initially turned down for the astronaut program, NASA offered Harris a job at Johnson Space Center, an opportunity he happily accepted. Harris completed a National Research Council Fellowship in Endocrinology at the NASA Ames Research Center in 1987 and then joined NASA Johnson Space Center as a clinical scientist and flight surgeon at the Aerospace School of Medicine in 1988.
Harris worked for NASA for over ten years, where he researched musculoskeletal physiology and disuse osteoporosis. Later, he conducted clinical investigations of space adaptation and developed in-flight medical devices which helped to prolong an astronaut’s time in space. Finally, in January of 1990, Harris was chosen for the Astronaut Corps. In 1993, he served as a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-55. Additionally, in 1995, he achieved the position of Payload Commander on the Space Shuttle Discovery STS-63, where he became the first African-American to walk in space. Harris also conducted the world’s first telemedicine conference from space with the Mayo Clinic. A veteran astronaut for over eighteen years, Harris logged more than 438 hours and traveled over 7.2 million miles in space.
Some of the highlights of Harris’s time outside of Earth’s atmosphere include seeing the Northern lights, witnessing a volcanic eruption, observing a sunrise or a sunset every 45 minutes, and viewing a sandstorm over the Sahara Desert. Yet Harris said the best part of space exploration is the perspective that it gives you.
“Donning a 350-pound suit and opening up the airlock and walking out for the very first time where you have an unobstructed view of the earth is just incredible,” Harris said. “It’s a God’s eye view. The best part is the perspective that it gives you. It’s just incredible, and it’s something that I like to share with audiences because people haven’t been as blessed as I have been having a chance to do that, and I want them to understand that, too.”
“I believe that life is for living, and that after you accomplish one goal, you set another,” Harris said. “We are infinite beings with infinite potential. We have the power within ourselves to do anything we set our minds to do.”
After his time at NASA came to an end, Harris went on to fulfill another dream of his, which was to become an entrepreneur. Harris, who stated that he was blessed to have accomplished all of the goals he set out to accomplish at NASA, started a venture capital firm called Vesalius Ventures in 2002. The firm, which has dedicated itself to accelerating the future of medicine, is on a mission to transform health care by utilizing emerging technologies such as medical technology, telecommunications, and information technology to make health care easier and more accessible.
Today, Harris’s goal is to grow the business into an international asset management firm. That task has Harris traveling often, as he works with partners in places like Dubai, China, and Ethiopia in an effort to bring exciting new opportunities to market from around the world. Specifically, the company seeks to utilize new technologies for the delivery of health care, such as telemedicine. By providing equity capital and management assistance to help early to mid-stage companies, Vesalius Ventures wants to help these growing companies to achieve success. Their desire, ultimately, is to continually be a part of where medical technology is going, thus ensuring that brilliant new ideas are not only conceived in the mind, but are born, developed, and utilized as well.
One irony, Harris said, in the developing industry surrounding the medical field is the fact that several of the technological advances that are enjoyed today actually came about as a result of the television show Star Trek, which he enjoyed so much. Personal computers, individual communication devices, and medical technologies that were originally introduced on Star Trek were precursors for the scientific advances made use of today, explained Harris with a laugh.
“I think Gene Roddenberry, the writer of Star Trek, was somewhat of a visionary,” Harris said.
Harris actually met Gene Roddenberry’s wife, Majel. He said that Majel told him about how Roddenberry wanted Star Trek to have an actual scientific basis, and so he often consulted with the scientists of the day while writing the show. Warp drive and light speed were both ideas that came from experts at the time. “It is interesting how sometimes science-fiction can predict science reality,” Harris said during a conference in India.
Inspiring Future Generations
While Harris is usually busy traveling the globe for Vesalius Ventures, he always makes time to invest in America’s youth as a part of the Harris Foundation, which was officially founded in 1998.
“The whole focus of the Harris Foundation is that we want to create programs around our pillars of success, which are education, health, and wealth,” Harris said. “The reason that we picked those
areas is because it is important for us to be educated. It is important for us to be healthy, and it is important for you to know how to manage money, and to do it well.”
Currently, the Harris Foundation is sponsoring many programs for youth. The Dare to Dream program is designed to boost self esteem and provide positive role models for elementary and middle
school-aged children. The Exxon Mobil Bernard Harris Math and Science Scholarship program provides financial support for African-American and Hispanic students who are pursuing science and math degrees. Additionally, the Harris Foundation sponsors the Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp is a two-week camp, hosted by colleges across the nation, to help students enhance their proficiency in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
The Harris Foundation supports around fifteen various programs in an effort to ensure that America’s youth is both inspired and prepared to dream big in the future. This is part of the reason that Bernard Harris traveled with the Dream Tour from 2008 to 2011, visiting middle school students across America, participating with other STEM professionals, and giving motivational speeches to students. His desire to motivate today’s youth the same way his mother motivated him is very important to Harris and he has no plans to slow down his charity work anytime soon.
In his personal life, Harris enjoys being surrounded by the people who love him most. His mother and step-father, who are still alive and well, are constant sources of inspiration for Harris, who admires their love and devotion to each other. Although Harris’s mother currently suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, Harris says her devoted husband Joe is faithfully by her side.
“His whole job is taking care of her,” Harris explained. “But it is beautiful to see.”
Harris himself was married in 1989 to Sandra Fay Lewis of Sunnydale, California. His daughter, Brook Alexandria, was born in 1992, and while Harris’s own marriage resulted in a divorce in 2008, he and his daughter are still very close.
Currently, Harris’s daughter is in her senior year of college at his alma mater, Texas Tech University, where she is studying psychology and business. Enrolled in the honors college, Brook has found her own way to carry on her father’s legacy by combining her interest in science with business, and by living out her own dreams, just as her father has lived his.
Although he has several degrees and numerous awards, the always modest and down-to-earth Harris does not intend to rest on his laurels anytime soon. In true Bernard fashion, whenever he lives out one dream, Harris simply smiles and gets up again to go out and live another. His current plans are to continue to grow Vesalius Ventures and to begin playing the tenor sax again, so that he, and a few members of his old band, can begin playing again. Perhaps for an over-achiever like Harris, a good jam session is as close as one can actually get to taking a rest.
“I think all of us are born with unlimited capabilities, but some people are hampered by the environment they grew up in,” Harris said to the Horatio Alger Association. “But if you react positively to that environment, you can succeed.”