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Bernard Harris, Jr.’s journey to space

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Bernard A. Harris Jr. believed he was born for a reason, and that reason was to become an astronaut.

On February 9, 1995, Harris became the first African American to walk in space.

His journey to space wasn’t an easy one, though. Harris grew up in a poor community in Houston, Texas, and experienced many struggles in his home life. His mother, an educator, moved him out of the restrictive environment and to a Navajo reservation, where he was free to explore and dream.

Harris, who enjoyed watching the TV show “Star Trek,” discovered he loved to explore in the mountains that surrounded him. He also discovered he was good at science, specifically space science.

Harris visited the Johnson Space Center as a 5-year-old and was amazed at what he saw. Eight years later, he watched on television as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, and decided he wanted to become an astronaut.

“For the first time, human beings had left this planet and gone to another planet called the moon,” he said. ‘’When I saw that, I knew what I wanted to do. I had found my passion.”

Harris was also interested in medicine and learned that physicians worked in the space program. To make his dreams a reality, he set off on a course to pursue his education and earn a medical degree.

In 1987, Harris trained as a flight surgeon at the Aerospace School of Medicine in Texas before NASA hired him to work at the Johnson Space Center. That same year, he submitted his application for the Astronaut Training Program, but didn’t qualify. He was devastated, but instead of giving up, he worked to develop the skills he’d need to apply again. “Our greatest growth comes when we fail,” he later said. A second attempt in 1990 earned Harris an interview and his eventual selection.

Speaking to a group of graduates at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 2015, Harris described feeling small during a spacewalk as he looked at “this big blue ball of a planet called planet Earth … and the sea of stars.”

“Suddenly, I went from being this small person to being larger than life with this realization: that I was doing something that very few people had done before… and with this mission, I was the first African American to walk in space. Why? Because of a dream I had when I was a kid. I tell that story to remind me—to remind you—how important you are, and can be."