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Thursday, April 25, 2024

First African American to Walk in Space Inspires Students to Reach for the Stars

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Forty years ago on a hot July day, a 13 year-old boy sat spellbound in front of the television watching something no one had ever seen before.

He ran to his mother in excitement and told her that he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to be an astronaut.

That young man with an interest in science and math grew up and achieved his childhood dream. Dr. Bernard Harris shared this story with students at the 2009 ExxonMobil Summer Science Camp at Indiana University that bears his name. Dr. Harris is a medical doctor, a flight surgeon, and an astronaut who in 1995 became the first African American to walk in space. A veteran astronaut for over 19 years, he has logged in more than 438 hours and traveled over 7.2 million miles in space. Now that he is earthbound, his mission is to help others reach for the stars.

Nearly 90 students from the fifth, sixth, and seventh grades listened as Dr. Harris recalled that historic moon landing in July of 1969. “When I saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon, that was it! I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be like them.” His mother encouraged him to do and be anything he wanted to.

The path to achieving his dream required determination and hard work. Dr. Harris chose to become a physician because “biology plus helping people equals medicine.” His hard work and determination bore fruit. The first time he applied for the astronaut program, he was not accepted. Yet he did not let that discourage him and was accepted the following year. “When you identify obstacles, you can get past them.”

Now he helps others overcome the obstacles in fulfilling their dreams. The ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp at Indiana University is a free camp that helps facilitate learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Students were selected in a competitive process from school districts throughout Indiana, including Gary, Indianapolis, and Evansville.

This year’s camp theme is sustainability with a special focus on water as a vital resource. Camp activities include hands-on learning, classes, and field trips. Students live in dorms on the Bloomington campus and get a taste of the college experience.

Dr. Harris founded the camp in 1994. The Harris Foundation was founded in 1998 to support math and science education and crime prevention programs, and it now partners with ExxonMobil to provide 30 free two-week summer camps across the country. Dr. Harris visited IU as part of the camp’s Media Day event held on July 16. Students also heard from Cory Gandert, a mechanical engineer at ExxonMobil’s refinery in Joliet, Illinois.

After listening to Dr. Harris and Mr. Gandert, students participated in a raft rally, constructing rafts of aluminum foil that were judged by the number of pennies they could hold while floating in water. The IU campers broke the previous record with more than 500 pennies. The winners were presented with IU pennants. Students gathered around Dr. Harris for photographs as Media Day came to a close. They had clearly enjoyed an exciting day of fun and inspiration.

“We want you to accomplish your dreams,” said Dr. Harris, “whatever they may be.”

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