Physician Bernard Harris was the first black man to walk in space. He has since left NASA and established a successful venture capital firm, along with a foundation aimed at promoting science education for disadvantaged youth. He will speak to 950 students at Marina Middle School on Friday.
In your book, you say you knew from childhood that you wanted to be an astronaut. Why did you decide to do that by becoming a doctor instead of the engineering or astronomy route? I was influenced by two people early on. In high school, I had to figure out what kind of major I was going to go into because I wanted to be an astronaut, and I looked around at the options and I saw a guy by the name of Joe Kerwin, the first American physician to fly into space, so that was pretty neat. And at the same time, our family doctor was a very prominent African American physician named Frank Bryant. He took me under his wing and I had a chance to go and see patients with him and he introduced me to medical students … He made it pretty easy. I knew I could have a viable career here on earth and then I could use that same career to apply to the astronaut corps.
After two missions in space, you left both NASA and medicine and instead pursued a career in business. Why? I’m one of those goal-oriented people, and so when I think about the dreams and goals that I had in life, flying in space was one, being a medical doctor was another and one was being an entrepreneur. I knew I couldn’t do them all at the same time, but when I completed my NASA career and completed everything I wanted to do there, I had the choice of either staying for another mission or pursuing another dream, and that was to be an entrepreneur.
How old were you then? I was 40, and I knew that if I did stay another mission, I would probably stay with NASA and retire there. Or I could take another chance and try to fulfill another dream.
Do you regret the choice you made? Not at all.I have been very blessed to be able to make the right choices at the right time — none of those choices are ever perfect. As I say in my book, my first step out of NASA into business wasn’t a smooth one. Business was new to me, I had never been trained in it, and what I found out very early was I had no skill in it. So what did I do? I went back to school and got an MBA, so at least I could speak the language. And that opened my eyes to other opportunities.
You have managed to break barriers in several fields that have historically been tough for black people to break into. Do you think there are still barriers? I believe there are barriers no matter who you are. When you decide to do something that’s as significant as being a doctor or being an astronaut or being a venture capitalist, none of those fields are easy, there are always hurdles that you have to develop the muscles to overcome. There’s still issues for African-Americans and other minorities in this country — it gets played out on the news every day. But that’s just the cost of succeeding, is being able to deal with your environment.
You’re coming to San Francisco to speak to middle school kids. What are the most common questions you get when talking to children? The most common are what is it like to travel in space and how do you go to the bathroom in space.