Today in African-American Transportation History – 1995: The First African-American to Walk in Space

Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr., a NASA astronaut, became the first African-American to walk in space. He accomplished this as a member of the six-person crew on STS-63, the first joint American-Russian space program mission and the 20th flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

The mission lasted just over eight days, and on the sixth day Harris and Dr. Michael Foale (who became the first British-born American to walk in space) stepped out into the open cargo bay of Discovery to begin testing the effectiveness of new insulation systems in their spacesuits. Harris placed a foot into a restraint on the shuttle’s 50-foot (15 meter)-long robot arm and then grabbed the forearms of Foale. They held onto each other as the robot’s arm was lifted high above the cargo bay by a fellow crew member operating the controls from inside the shuttle. Harris and Foale stayed in place there in the icy darkness of space, with temperatures reaching a low of 125 degrees Fahrenheit (87 degrees Celsius) below zero while orbiting Earth at 17,000 miles (27,359 kilometers) per hour.

“Just gorgeous, just gorgeous, just gorgeous,” marveled Harris as he viewed Earth more than 200 miles (322 kilometers) below. “How many times can I say that?” Harris also took time during this spacewalk to operate a steering wheel-like device to move a 2,500-pound (1,134-kilogram) satellite that had already been snatched up by the robot’s arm. Harris moved the satellite up and down, side by side, and end over end to help NASA better assess how well spacewalkers can handle massive objects.

Harris and Foale were in space for a little over four-and-a-half hours before making their way back inside Discovery. Harris dedicated his pioneering spacewalk “to all African-American achievements,” and carried out into space the flag of the Navajo nation to similarly highlight the contributions of Native Americans.

Harris had been born in Temple, Texas, in 1956. He spent much of his childhood on a New Mexico-based Navajo reservation, where his mother taught at schools run by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. He graduated from the University of Houston with a B.S. degree in biology in 1978 and an MD degree from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine in 1982. In 1985, he completed a residency in internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic. Harris was subsequently trained as a flight surgeon at the Aerospace School of Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio. In addition to his professional and academic accomplishments, Harris has found time to become both a licensed private pilot and certified scuba diver.

Harris worked at NASA as a clinical scientist and flight surgeon, conducting investigations of space adaptation. He became an astronaut in 1991. Prior to his historic 1995 flight, he was a member of the seven-member crew on board Space Shuttle Columbia for STS-55 in 1993; this mission lasted 10 days.

By the time Harris left NASA in 1996, he logged more than 438 hours and traveled approximately 7.2 million miles (11.6 million kilometers) in space. He has received the NASA Flight Medal and a NASA Award of Merit as well as several honorary doctorates.

For more information on Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr., please check out http://www.blackpast.org/aah/harris-bernard-jr-1956.

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