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One Giant Leap of Faith

Two hundred-thirteen nautical miles above the earth, Bernard Harris Jr. had an unobstructed celestial view as he floated out of the Space Shuttle Discovery hatch and into history.

But his noticeable pause “for a little bit,” as he recalled, prompted NASA’s Mission Control to ask, “Why are you doing that?”

Harris was marveling at his surroundings, as space shuttle Discovery orbited at a dizzying 17,000 miles an hour, circling Earth once every 90 minutes. He gathered himself and quickly responded, “Oh, nothing.”

But the unfolding event was very much something. Mission STS-63, which launched Feb. 3, 1995, broke ground in many ways. It marked the first rendezvous of the American space shuttle with Russia’s space station Mir. Also on board, Eileen Collins, an American, became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, and C. Michael Foale became the first British-born American astronaut to walk in space. And for payload commander Harris, who was on his second and final NASA mission, it was the improbable realization of a childhood dream, as he became the first African American to walk in space on Feb. 9, 1995


“The little boy who was forced to use the back door of a [Waco] diner in the sixties because of his race had triumphed in the nineties,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir, Dream Walker. “It was my day and I was flying pretty high!”

Harris, born in Temple in 1956 and now based in Houston, grew up a big fan of all things science fiction, from Buck Rogers to Star Trek. The 1969 Apollo 11 spectacle was must-see TV for Harris, though a continuing social drama hovered in the background as Black Americans fought hard for civil rights. They marched, protested, sat in, and rioted—Burn, baby, burn!—for most of the decade that neared its end with Neil Armstrong
setting foot on the moon. The watershed moment fully captured the world’s imagination and instantly cemented the career aspirations of 13-year-old Harris, despite the racial unrest he saw on TV and in his everyday life.


“I could see human beings accomplishing one of the greatest feats in the world, but I could change the channel and see our people being disgraced, dogs sicced on them, water cannons spraying them,” Harris recalled in a 2019 Houston Public Media interview. “To decide, despite what I saw, that I wanted to be an astronaut, was a big leap of faith.”

When I interviewed Harris earlier this year, he described his innate drive to succeed “in spite of the segregated and hostile racial climate of the ’60s” as an inherited family trait. His mother, Gussie Harris, bolstered his dreams by insisting he could be whatever he wanted, no matter that he grew up poor.

Harris’ family moved to Houston shortly after he was born. They lived there until he was 6, when Gussie and Bernard Harris Sr. divorced and Gussie took her three children back to Temple. She had a home economics degree from Prairie View A&M University and a desire to teach, but no local teaching offers came in. So, she uprooted the family and drove more than 1,000 miles to Greasewood, Arizona, to teach at a boarding school on the Navajo Nation Reservation. During the summers, the family would retreat to Texas, where Gussie met and married Joe Burgess, a police officer. Harris said his new father figure helped bring stability to a family set on accomplishing goals.

“There are certain characteristics you’re born with, and mine was wanting to do things that people hadn’t done before,” Harris explained. “Once I had it in my mind that I wanted to go into space, I was not going to be deterred. Looking at television and seeing the box they were trying to paint us in as African Americans, I was saying, ‘It’s not going to happen here. That’s not going to determine my dream.’”

Harris’ experience growing up in the Heights neighborhood near downtown Houston, where “not a lot of kids made it out,” proved critical to his character development. It instilled in him a determination to give back to the Black community, especially kids searching for hope. Because Harris’ biggest obstacle to realizing his space dreams was his race, he now works to help minority kids obtain STEM educations as CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative.

The Dallas-based organization operates programs designed to boost the number of STEM teachers, increase student access to Advanced Placement courses, and train existing teachers. Against the backdrop of the national dialogue on racial injustice, Harris spends most of his day now conversing with educational leaders and corporate executives who want to know how they can make the system more inclusive.

Read more at Texas Highways.