Astronaut and TMC Board Member Bernard A. Harris Jr. reflects on the moon landing
BERNARD A. HARRIS JR.—physician, astronaut, philanthropist and entrepreneur—credits the historic moon landing with catalyzing his interest in space. As an astronaut, he went to space twice, including a mission that was part of the Shuttle-Mir Program, during which he became the first African American astronaut to perform a spacewalk.
Since retiring from NASA, Harris has worked tirelessly to advance STEM education, particularly in underserved communities. He is a member of the TMC Board of Directors and CEO of Vesalius Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in technology poised to transform health care.
Q | Tell me about watching the moon landing on TV as a kid. I imagine that was one of the most formative experiences of your life.
A | I’d put that up at the top. I grew up the first six years of my life in Houston on the west side. Now they call it the Heights. We grew up poor. My dad had just gotten out of the service. There were three kids. My parents divorced when I was six, and my mother took a job on a Navajo reservation. That was the backdrop I had when I watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. I don’t know where you grew up …
[I grew up here in Houston]
… so you probably missed out on the beautiful light show that occurs when the sun goes down and you see the Milky Way and you realize all those stars are just the ones in our galaxy, which is one of billions of galaxies out there. Being an inquisitive kid, being a geek, I followed the space program from first or second grade. By the time July 1969 occurred, I was 13 years old watching the lunar landing. And that was just incredible for me—not only seeing the stars, but seeing human beings land on one of those planetary bodies. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of those guys.
Q | Did you have any teachers growing up who helped cultivate your fascination with science and space?
A | In middle school, on the reservation, my science teacher, Mr. Johnson, helped us create a science club and a rocket club. We were launching rockets, and we even built a flying saucer that really got me into this whole concept of flying. From a mentor standpoint, he was an educator who loved what he was doing and imparted that love for science in me.
Q | In addition to serving on the Texas Medical Center Board of Directors and the TMC Venture Fund investment committee, you’re the CEO of the nonprofit National Math and Science Initiative and you lead your own nonprofit, The Harris Foundation. It sounds like a lot of your nonprofit work is about paying it forward because you had some great mentors.
A | It was a combination of things that made me want to pay it forward. One was growing up poor initially. I could see early the importance of education in enabling dreams. Once you become an astronaut, we get asked to visit communities and act as role models. I spent a lot of time in inner-city communities trying to be inspirational to young people. I realized there were a lot of issues with our education system. That got me to thinking about how I can help—not only in supporting them, but inspiring them to become whatever it is they want to be. I think education is the great enabler.
Q | What sort of work does the National Math and Science Initiative do?
A | It’s teaching teachers how to teach STEM. Most teachers have general education. Then they go to the districts and are asked to teach chemistry or biology. The courses you loved the most in school were probably because the teacher was most knowledgeable in that space. It’s about making teachers feel comfortable about the courses they teach.
Q | This year, the Trump Administration accelerated the U.S. space timeline and pledged to be on the moon again by 2024. Do you think we can do it? Should we do it?
A | I think we can do it, if we have the will, and if they can muster support from Congress to get the dollars. I think it’s going to look a little different from 1969. It’s going to be more than just the government doing it. I think there’s going to be private industry involved. The other difference I see is that instead of going there for just a few days, driving around in a lunar buggy and leaving our footprints, we’ll be building habitats and living on the surface.
Q | A lot of your medical research at NASA was about how space affects the body. How does that work apply to a journey to Mars?
A | When I was [completing residency] at the Mayo Clinic, they had an aerospace group. I went to the head of it and said, ‘I want to be an astronaut. What advice would you give me?’ He picked up the phone and called the head of life sciences at NASA—it’s the group in charge of ensuring human survival in space. He said, ‘I have a kid who says he wants to be an astronaut. What should he do?’ I was told to figure out the biggest issue NASA has to solve about life in space and become an expert in it. That’s exactly what I did.
What I found is that bone loss was huge. We lose 1 percent of our bone per month in space. It continues at the same rate, and at some point, we’ll reach the fracture threshold—where if you step out onto a planet, and you have less bone, you’ll fracture. NASA asked me to lead what’s called the countermeasure effort. It was part of the medical system being developed as we were thinking about spending longer and longer periods in space. In space, your heart shrinks in size. We lose one-fifth our blood volume. We can’t fight illnesses like we do on Earth. And we know genetic abnormalities occur from being exposed to zero gravity and probably radiation. The list goes on. That whole thing is called space adaptation syndrome.
Q | Is that still the biggest challenge in getting to Mars?
A | It is. Right now, it takes about a year to get to Mars, maybe three months on the surface, and maybe a year and a half to get back. There are some technologies that can get us there faster, but it’s a long trip. If you don’t exercise or have some way to stress the bone, you’re going to end up landing with weaker bones and nobody really knows what would happen there. The other big thing with that sort of trip is radiation exposure. Any time during a trip there can be a solar flare, and if there is, then there would be a lot of issues with the crew— possibly even death from the solar flares if we aren’t shielded.
Q | I read that you didn’t make the cut the first time you applied to be an astronaut. What was it like getting that rejection, after you devoted your entire life to becoming an astronaut?
A | I was working at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California at the time. I didn’t make the cut, but they offered me a job at Johnson Space Center in the bone lab. They saw something in me, and that was their way of keeping me hooked. But it was a double-edged sword. I could come to JSC, and if I did really well they’d hire me [as an astronaut]. But if I didn’t do well … you’re under the microscope. I have to say I worked hard during that period to make a name for myself. In the next astronaut class, I was the first person interviewed and the first person called and hired.
Q | You went to space in 1993 and 1995, for a total of 18 days. Almost 25 years later, how often do you think about those 18 days?
A | Every day. That’s in part because when people find out I’m an astronaut, everybody wants to know about it. Our communications group put together what they call a post-flight video. We would play it before going onstage at speaking engagements. They’d open with us walking to the launch pad. When I saw it, it was almost like I didn’t believe it was me walking to the launch pad. The experience is overwhelming; your mind cannot take it all in when you’re in the moment.
Q | Would you want to go back to space?
A | Yes. It would be fun. I would enjoy it. If we were to go to the moon and NASA said, ‘We want some old astronauts,’ I’d be up for it. That’s where my inspiration was.
Q | Your second mission was part of the Shuttle-Mir Program. You were a kid growing up during the Cold War. In some ways, that mission was a diplomatic effort as well as a technical one. What did it mean for you to be able to participate in something like that?
A | That was historic. We have an interesting relationship with Russia now, but space has been an area where we really do collaborate with the Russians. Out of all the disputes we might have with them, that’s hands off. It’s a great model for how we should explore space. It shouldn’t just be one country exploring space, it should be a collection of space-faring nations coming together to go back to the moon or to Mars. After all, we’re all Earthlings. That experience of being the first shuttle to go to the Russian space station was incredible. It was the first time two large vehicles had ever come together in space. Their space station was probably 1.5 million pounds. Our vehicle was about half a million pounds.
Q | Was it terrifying? Did you wonder what would happen if you bumped into Mir?
A | Yes, that’s why we were really careful. Not only did we have help from radar stations on the ground, we had our own radar in the spaceship in order to measure our distance. We had someone in the window of the shuttle basically pinging the space station and calling out numbers—200 feet, 100 feet—calling it out to the pilot as the pilot is also visually checking it.
Q | That was also the mission when you became the first African American astronaut to do a spacewalk. Didn’t part of that walk involve testing space suits against extreme cold?
A | Certainly it’s an honor for an astronaut to do a spacewalk. But we could have skipped the suit test, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about this. What happens in orbit is we get exposed to extreme temperatures, from 200 degrees to minus 165. How do I know it’s minus 165? Part of the study—we called it the space suit integrity study—required us to develop the first thermometer for space.
We got on the end of the robotic arm, which extends about 35 feet. Astronaut Michael Foale and I hung out as the commander maneuvered the vehicle from pointing towards the Earth— where we can get radiant heat to keep temperatures from getting too extreme—to flipping the vehicle around to deep space, where we’re radiating our heat.
Within 10 to 15 minutes, the temperature went from 200 degrees to minus 165 degrees. It was crazy cold. So cold that my feet felt like I was standing on ice cubes. My hands were so cold I could barely keep them in my glove. We turned our temperature control to full heat, but it wasn’t enough. The only way we could stand being out there was to move and raise our body temperature. After the experiment, they changed the suit.
Q | How did you make the pivot to venture capitalism once your career with NASA ended?
A | When I was done with my career at NASA, I had an opportunity to work for an aerospace company called Spacehab that was venture funded. My involvement with venture capital came from a chance encounter with one of the founders of the venture capital industry, Jack Gill, who had a company in Palo Alto called Vanguard Ventures. I knew nothing about venture capital and said, ‘I want to know about what you do and how you do it.’ He suggested I go and get an MBA. After I did, he hired me to work at Vanguard Ventures.
When we do on-board diagnosis in space, that information needs to be sent back down to doctors on the ground. That’s telemedicine. I was convinced that telemedicine was the direction that health care was going. I redefined it as the intersection of medical devices, telecommunications and IT. That redefinition allowed me to go to other venture capital firms and let them see that this intersection of technologies would be utilized in health care in a big way. That was probably 2000. By 2002, I convinced enough venture capital firms and one corporation to be the founding partners for my venture capital firm, Vesalius Ventures. For 17 years, we’ve been doing investments in the telemedicine space.
Q | I’ve heard some astronauts describe viewing Earth from space as a life-changing, almost religious experience. How did that view shape your perspective?
A | I’ve always had the perspective that there’s something greater than ourselves here. I’m religious. I’m a Christian, so I believe there’s a higher power. In space, I’m off the planet and can look back at it. It’s a beautiful sight, this blue and white planet. I’m seeing it against this backdrop of stars that I initially saw from Earth and now see in space. It reaffirmed my belief that there’s a higher power. I had an overwhelming sense that this was ordered.
Everything had its place. I have a greater sense of belonging, of the connectedness of all of us. One of the things you don’t see from space is the differences between us. It reminds us of our uniqueness, in a way, but also our connectedness to each other. If we focus on that, the world will be much better.
Bernard A. Harris Jr., M.D., was interviewed by TMC Communications Director Ryan Holeywell. The conversation was edited for clarity and length.