Former U.S. astronaut visits Roosevelt Middle School
on November 21, 2009
Hundreds of noisy Roosevelt middle schoolers filled the warm auditorium Friday morning in anticipation of their esteemed guest – a former U.S. astronaut.
“Bulldogs, put your hands together for Dr. Bernard Harris!” said one of Dr. Harris’ staff members.
The diverse student body cheered as a man with salt and pepper hair dressed in a bright blue space jumpsuit was handed a microphone.
“Aren’t you guys glad to be out of class?” said Harris. The audience laughed and some cries of “Yes!” rang through the crowd.
Harris, now 56, grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and said that when he was a child, his mother would constantly ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said he never knew what he wanted to be until he saw Buzz Aldrin in space on television.
“I said, ‘Mom, Mom, I know what I want to be when I grow up! An astronaut,’” he said. “And you know what she said? ‘That’s nice.’” Some of the children in the audience laughed.
He said that once he realized he wanted to become an astronaut he became dedicated to achieving his goal by excelling at school. “You have to choose to be successful,” he said to the students.
Throughout his career, Harris has worn many different hats: medical doctor, astronaut, licensed private pilot, author and certified scuba diver. But his astronaut title is unique in that in 1993 he became the first African-American astronaut to walk in space.
Before becoming an astronaut Harris worked for NASA for ten years and, he said, while doing various research projects he was selected into the astronaut corps in 1990. He was a mission specialist on the space shuttle mission Colombia STS-55 that launched in 1993.
After a second spaceflight in 1995 on the shuttle mission Colombia STS-63, in 1998 he founded the Harris Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Texas that does educational community outreach, especially in minority communities. Through the Harris Foundation, his Dream Tour began in 2008; it’s a middle school tour around inner cities in the United States urging children to succeed in their math and science courses. The tour, which is funded by the ExxonMobil Foundation, made its ninth stop in Oakland.
“So what’s so different about space?” Dr. Harris asked the children. “No gravity!” they shouted.
The children were very enthusiastic during his interactive presentation. More than half of the children raised their hands to answer questions – and get a free t-shirt.
After he explained that the patches on his space suit represented his two launches into space and the research he did in space, he asked one small boy why he could not wear the lightweight jumpsuit he had on if he was in space. “Because you would die,” the boy said softly into the microphone.
Giggles filled the auditorium and Harris smiled widely.
The small boy and another girl were even able to participate in a pretend space launch. The children walked up the stairs of the stage and lay on their backs in chairs with their feet up. On the large screen above their feet, a space shuttle video began. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1!,” the students shouted as smoke came out of the stage.
Harris shared pictures from space with the students, and told them it is possible to achieve your goals – if you do well in school. He urged the students to seriously start thinking about what they wanted to be when they grew up.
“Whether you want to be a pilot, medical doctor, principal, president, or play sports, do well in math and science,” he said.
Harris said the feedback from the tour’s second year has been very supportive. “It’s my way of giving back to kids who look like me,” he said.
Lead image: “Will you sign my t-shirt?” Dr. Bernard Harris, the first black astronaut to walk in space, was rushed by middle schoolers to sign autographs and take pictures.
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