African-American space pioneer visits kids at Summer Science Camp

Day campers conduct experiments at USC Summer Science Camp, July 22, 2010.
Day campers conduct experiments at USC Summer Science Camp, July 22, 2010.
Corey Moore/KPCC

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He’s the first African-American to walk in space. Today Bernard Harris visited about 50 middle school kids at a USC day camp, where he encouraged them to aim for the moon.

“I want to leave you with this image of me, before I went into a room, in the bathroom, completely naked with a big diaper, putting it between my legs and putting on tape…”

Sometimes it takes a story like that to illustrate the truth of space travel. That’s Bernard Harris explaining to his young audience that the big heavy suit he and fellow astronauts wore when they soared into orbit had to stay on for hours at a time – hence the diapers.

Harris — who’s also a medical doctor — used humor, helium and a history lesson or two as he demonstrated what it’s like to reach the outer limits. He told the kids about the first time he boarded a space shuttle in the early 1990s. Everything didn’t go as planned.

“The first mission, we lost an engine on the pad. Kind of a scary day. We had to stand down for a month — and we flew the mission a month later.”

Harris said his love and curiosity about "Star Trek," science and things out of this world led him to become the first African-American to step out in space. He maintains that traveling the universe at thousands of miles per hour leaves little room for nervousness. But he admitted that it can rattle nerves anyway.

“One of my colleagues back in the '60s said it appropriately. He says you can’t be too comfortable when you realize you’re sitting on a vehicle that was built by the lowest bidder — being a government contract."

Harris said that for the most part, the missions are safe — thanks to skilled contractors and NASA employees.

That reassurance probably won’t be enough to get 13-year-old Jasmine Taylor of L.A. onto a spaceship…

“I don’t like heights….”

But Taylor said Harris’ achievements inspired her. Same for 12-year-old Kristen Moreno.

“He was interested in "Star Trek" and stuff like that. So that was interesting.”

Harris conducted the event as part of his Summer Science Camp. He partnered with Exxon Mobil to start the program 16 years ago. The astronaut-turned-businessman hopes to encourage more children across the country to take an interest in science and math. He said they’ll need those skills for whatever field they choose — even if it’s a career that keeps them grounded here on Earth.

Harris told the kids he developed a passion for the outer limits when he was about 13 years old. That’s when he - along with the rest of the world - watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969.

“And as I watched that on that little black and white television… you guys know what that is?… I was fascinated with what I saw. And that was human beings for the first time, stepping out. In my head, ‘man that looks like fun. That’s something I’d like to do.’”

Harris participated in the first of his two space shuttle missions in the early 1990s.