Former astronaut, alumnus aims to transform STEM

by Kris Harrell

Former NASA Astronaut Bernard Harris delved into his beginnings and what pushed him to become who he is today, during a recent keynote address for the Troy University Alumni Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi.

Harris, a Kappa Alpha Psi brother, discussed his extensive and versatile background as a pilot, scuba diver, medical doctor, scientist and astronaut at a keynote speaker for the fraternity’s scholarship breakfast.

Harris began as a mission specialist at NASA in July 1991, flying on board of the Space Shuttle Columbia from April 26 to May 6, 1993, and logging more than 239 hours and 4,1 million miles in space. 

He also flew as the Payload Commander on STS-63 in February 1995. It was the first flight in the then-new joint Russian American Space Program. Harris rendezvoused with the Russian Space Station, Mir, spending over 198 hours in space and hurtling around Earth 129 times, 

“President Kennedy many years ago made a declaration that the U.S. was going to send a man to the moon,” Harris said. “I heard those words, ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’”

“Well,” Harris added, “it was a giant leap for this little boy to look again at that black and white television and decide that he would follow in the footsteps of those great men.”

Harris spoke about his experiences in space and about being the first Black person to complete an extravehicular activity – any activity done outside a spacecraft in outer space. 

After retiring from his NASA position, Harris’s mission became promoting STEM fields, especially in black communities. 

“The next industrial revolution is going to be space-based,” said Harris, who referenced improving space technology and plans to establish a habitat on the moon.

But Harris is concerned about inequity in advancement in the STEM labor force, which is predominately white.

“The thing that I fear the most is that if we, as people of color, don’t get involved and get involved now, we’re going to be literally left here on Earth,” Harris said. 

Communities will need to work from the ground up to support all  students to transform the face of the STEM workforce, Harris said. 

“Kids who go through AP are better prepared for college,” Harris added. “We need to make sure that they’re prepared for college level courses, but unfortunately, we are not. Blacks are not. Our students are not.” 

The Kappa Alpha Psi strives to invest in the futures of Troy students, especially those of color. The fraternity plans to award six local scholarships to three schools, including Pike County High School, Charles Henderson High School and Goshen High School. Each $1,000 scholarship will be awarded to one boy and one girl from the three schools to attend Troy University. 

“As a fraternity, our motto is ‘achievement in every field of human endeavor,’ and we try to do what we can to give back to the community to give young people an opportunity to get that started,” said Michael Sibley, chairman of the scholarship committee of the Kappa Alpha Psi alumni chapter. 

This scholarship can help students pursue careers in STEM and transform STEM from the ground up. 

One of the sponsors for the scholarships, Troy Bank and Trust, also had employees recognized at the scholarship breakfast. 

John Walker, senior vice president of Troy Bank and Trust, was recognized. 

“We like to give back to the community to see the community grow because when the community grows, we grow,” Walker said.

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