African-American NASA Astronaut Bernard Harris: Remembering His Historic Spacewalk and His Work Today to Progress Diversity in NASA

By: Vanessa Guigon, Communications Department Intern


Image courtesy of NASA

Bernard A. Harris Jr. made history when he became the first African-American to perform a spacewalk, specifically a 4-hour and 39-minute spacewalk, during the STS-63 mission in 1995. He celebrated his 65th birthday on Saturday June 26, 2021. It is important to honor Harris’s accomplishments and recognize the growing achievements of African-Americans in space. Let us first take a look at Harris’s path to becoming an astronaut and conducting his legendary spacewalk.

Harris’s life, which has led him to become accomplished in many fields, prepared him well to become a NASA astronaut. He was born on June 26, 1956 in Temple, Texas. He received his MD degree in 1982 and then completed his residency training in 1985 at the Mayo Clinic. After his residency training, Harris went on to complete a National Research Council Fellowship at NASA Ames Research Center in California, finishing his fellowship in 1987 before joining the NASA Johnson Space Center as a clinical scientist and flight surgeon. While at NASA Ames Research Center, Harris conducted research in musculoskeletal physiology and developed in-flight medical devices to help lengthen the time astronauts can spend in space, including focusing on devices that combat bone loss and muscle atrophy. In 1988, Harris then trained as a flight surgeon at the Aerospace School of Medicine in Texas. According to NASA, he was selected by NASA in 1990 and became an astronaut in 1991. As one of the few African-American astronauts in NASA before Harris joined in 1990, Potomac Institute Senior Fellow and Board of Regents member Major General Charles Frank Bolden Jr. (USMC-Ret.) viewed himself as a mentor to Harris, recalling that “when Bernard came in, I gave him the benefit of things I had seen and sometimes we would fly together on a NASA T-38, with our families even getting to know each other.”

Harris’s spacewalk in 1995 was a historic event for many reasons. Before his infamous 1995 flight, Harris was the crew representative for Shuttle Software in the Astronaut Office Operations Development Branch and in 1991 was a mission specialist on STS-55, Spacelab D-2. In 1995, Harris was the Payload Commander on STS-63, which was a unique mission since it included a rendezvous with Mir, the Russian Space Station. The STS-63 mission was also legendary because Eileen M. Collins was able to make history as the first female shuttle pilot. Major General Bolden said that Harris’s spacewalk on STS-63 was “a momentous and historic occasion, and Bernard did an incredible job performing the spacewalk.” Major General Bolden was the Commander on STS-60, which was the first US/Russia shuttle mission, and he believes that the second US/Russia shuttle mission, STS-63, was critical to “demonstrate that our teams could successfully collaborate over a period of time, which was important because the only space station available to humanity at the time was Mir.”

Since Harris left NASA in 1996, he has spent his life dedicated to emphasizing the importance of education to younger generations. It was also in 1996 that he received his master’s degree in biomedical science from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. He went on to lead many companies that stress the importance of science and education, and became the CEO and Managing Partner of Vesalius Ventures, Inc., a venture capital firm. In August 1998, Harris founded The Harris Foundation, a non-profit whose mission surrounds providing underserved populations initiatives that enhance education, improve health, and generate sustainable wealth. As the CEO, his leadership revolves around raising teacher effectiveness and student achievement, according to The Harris Foundation. In addition, Harris is the CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative, where he states that “As a dreamer, I often encourage young people that ‘nothing is impossible, if you believe in your dreams.’ For that to happen, we as educators and education advocates must provide students with the tools to empower their dreams. Ultimately, we all benefit through those accomplishments.” Harris serves on many boards, including the Board of the National Academy of Medicine, the National Math and Science Initiative, and the Board of Directors for U.S. Physical Therapy (Nasdaq: USPH). In addition, Harris has received multiple awards, including the NASA Award of Merit, the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal, and the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal.

The importance of education is not only prioritized by Harris, but also other former astronauts such as Major General Bolden. Major General Bolden and Harris work together in the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which raises money to provide scholarships to students in STEM fields to encourage more young people to pursue STEM. According to Major General Bolden, Harris recognized the need to expand the diversity of scholarship applicants and decided to have astronauts from the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame raise money each year to provide scholarships for students from historically Black colleges and universities. Major General Bolden said, “We can’t inspire anyone until we inform them.” Growing up in segregated South Carolina, Major General Bolden felt limited in the occupations available to him. Harris and Major General Bolden, through their foundations that highlight the importance of education, want to “inform kids of color, underrepresented minorities, and women of what is available to them.”

Major General Bolden and Harris are among many other accomplished African-American NASA astronauts. Let’s take a look at some of those achievements. Frederick D. Gregory piloted a space shuttle in 1985 and was also the first African-American Deputy Administrator in NASA from 2002-2005. In 2006, the STS-116 mission on the space shuttle Discovery was the first time that two African-American astronauts flew in space together. In 2009, Major General Bolden became NASA’s first African-American Administrator, serving in that position until 2017. In December 2020, NASA chose 18 astronauts to create the Artemis Team, which included three African-American astronauts: Victor J. Glover, Jessica A. Watkins, and Stephanie D. Wilson. In 2020, NASA announced that Astronaut Jeanette Epps will be the first African-American woman to crew on the Boeing Starliner-1 mission to the International Space Station, with the flight expected to launch in 2021.

Even after acknowledging the many growing achievements in NASA’s diversity, it is important to recognize the progress left to be made in NASA. Major General Bolden states that “it’s not a question that we do not have enough” underrepresented people occupying jobs across all different levels in NASA. The importance of informing young children of the possibilities open to them starts with setting an example. Major General Bolden’s mentor, who inspired him to become an astronaut, was the “Late Great Doctor Ron McNair,” an African-American astronaut. Major General Bolden initially told McNair that he would not apply to NASA because “they would never pick me” and McNair responded saying “How do you know if you don’t try?” McNair’s encouragement and example led Major General Bolden to apply to NASA, and he became an astronaut in 1981. Major General Bolden emphasizes the importance of reaching out to young kids and speaking to them so that “they do not put an artificial limitation on themselves the way I did until I met McNair.”According to Major General Bolden, “We have to inform young kids about what’s available to them, give them the confidence in themselves to not let anybody tell them what they can’t do, and encourage them to be brave enough to accept the risk of failure,” demonstrating that astronauts such as him and Harris see the key to progress is through education.