Space Foam's Q&A with Dr. Bernard Harris, the first African-American to Complete a Spacewalk
Dr. Bernard Harris is living proof that science can take you places, from a medical degree, to outer space, to leading an education nonprofit. The Space Foam™ team had the great pleasure of interviewing a person we greatly admire, especially given our shared interest in space and STEM education. On February 11, 2020, Bernard will mark the 25th anniversary of his historic spacewalk. He was the first African-American astronaut to walk in space. Bernard Harris has been on the board of the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit that supports STEM education, since it was founded in 2007. He became CEO in November 2017. Here's our Q&A with Dr. Harris:
- You’re living proof that a STEM education can take you so many places, from an MD degree to space. As a child, how did you first develop an interest in STEM?
Growing up in a family of educators instilled in me a sense of curiosity which spurred my interest in science, particularly space exploration. So, when I saw the moon landing, I was hooked on the idea of becoming an astronaut. The challenge was deciding which career to pursue. Luckily, I had mentors and teachers who helped me discover that medicine could put me on the path to becoming an astronaut.
- How did you decide to join NASA?
I was tremendously excited seeing the moon landing and like many young people, I set my sights on NASA almost immediately. Of course, at that time, the “right stuff” was limited to white men, there were no women or minorities being considered to be astronauts. But my mother encouraged me to pursue my dreams and I was determined to become an astronaut despite not seeing anyone who looked like me. Things have dramatically changed since then, anyone with the ambition and willingness to work hard can travel in space.
- What was the biggest surprise about going into space? What part of the experience cannot be “simulated”?
Technology has advanced to the point that almost everything can be simulated, but what’s not replicated on Earth is micro-gravity. Everything we do here on Earth depends on gravity. So, space provides an opportunity to experiment in a different environment. This vastly increases our knowledge. The other thing that cannot be truly simulated are the vast views from space. They are awe-inspiring.
- What was it like sleeping in space?
A few factors make sleeping in space odd and, in some ways, uncomfortable. There’s no real up or down and you’re strapped in to keep in place because personal space is limited. The lack of gravity also causes several physiological changes that affect our sleep patterns. Lastly, as we travel over 17,500 miles per hour, astronauts experience a sunrise or sunset every 45 minutes.
- What made you decide to join NMSI as CEO?
Much like NASA and medicine, the opportunity to serve as CEO of NMSI, allows me the opportunity to pursue another passion of mine, ensuring that all students have the ability to pursue their dreams. We do this by providing administrators, educators and communities with the tools to empower the students to pursue careers in STEM.
- What advice would you give to a middle school or high school student who dreams of some day becoming an astronaut?
First, you can do it. Don’t allow yourself to be discouraged by doubters or by the amount of work that will be required. Second, get to work. Use the library and that smartphone to learn what NASA and commercial space organizations are considering for the next 20 to 30 years. Recognize that every mission needs a variety of experts from navigation to engineering, medical and research specialists. And finally, be patient. It takes years of education just to apply to train as an astronaut. It takes more years to train for each mission. But it is all worth it as you blast off into space and an opportunity to make a difference and impact on this world.
- Being the CEO of NMSI must be a busy and tiring job; what do you do to relax, unwind, and recuperate?
I travel and spend time with family and friends. I enjoy the beach and music and I do my best to unplug so I’m charged and ready to go.
- Students and educators are so busy and have so many stimuli. Do you find that they are overtired? What advice do you have for students and educators who are so overstimulated?
It’s hard to tell students to put their phones down and it’s hard to tell parents that their children are going to do great things without being involved in every extracurricular activity. So, we must find ways to engage with students that allow them the chance to better get to know themselves and their world. We all must practice disconnecting and getting the necessary sleep and rest, so we can be more present and effective in our daily lives.
- How can someone who is not an educator or school administrator support NMSI’s mission?
The biggest form of support is recognizing the critical importance of math and science education for all students – regardless of socio-economics, learning differences and aspirations. The skills learned through math and science education are universal and required across the economy and across our lives. We’re always grateful for gifts large and small and we’re especially grateful to parents and community members who advocate for STEM education and demand that their schools truly prepare young people to be creative problem-solvers and life-long learners.
Space Foam™ would like to thank Dr. Harris for speaking with us! Space Foam™ is thrilled to be collaborating with NMSI to promote awareness of STEM education training and the application of STEM principles in product development and other fields. Click here to learn more about NMSI and its partnership with Space Foam™.