Dr. Bernard Harris was greeted with applause at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Friday morning.
It was a welcome befitting one of our nation's elite.
"My first mission was an extra-terrestrial one where I spent time in space, and as an astronaut, I did what my bosses told me to do, of course, led by my dream of becoming an astronaut, and I went on a couple of missions, had a lot of fun, and I think that, for that, I have a responsibility to give back, which leads to my terrestrial mission, which is to go around this country, and, in fact, around the world, as you'll see in a few minutes, promoting education," Dr. Harris said.
On Feb. 9, 1995, Dr. Harris became the first African-American to walk in space.
"What I saw was, of course, this earth moving by at 17,500 miles an hour, and I remember the guy behind me, Michael Foale, as I stepped out, and I kinda paused, and he kinda pushed me and said, 'what are you doing,'" Dr. Harris said. "And I was holding on to the handhold, and I said, 'oh, nothing,' but in reality, in my head, I was going, holy cow. I didn't really say cow, neither, but holy cow."
Dr. Harris spoke to the crowd about the importance of teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics - or STEM. Part of that is being done through the Boy Scouts' NOVA program.
Back in 1998, he founded The Harris Foundation, which supports programs for disadvantaged children to help them pursue their dreams.
"I call it connecting the dots," he said. "Kids can take biology, they can take chemistry, but if they don't understand how that relates to their real world, then it just becomes a non-event for them, and so, we want to make this relevant to them so that they can understand that importance, and in doing that, we've been pretty successful, I think, nationally."
Dr. Harris also dismissed any criticism of NASA.
"I think it's important for the American people to know that the space program, NASA, is alive and well," he said. "I think there have been some recent activities that kinda highlight that. One, was Space X, which is one of the entrants to replace the shuttle, are going back and forth to lower orbit to the international space station, so we're excited about that. The other is Curiosity, which made a successful landing on Mars, which now people can see, in real time, what we're doing. But we're still planning on going to the moon, we're still planning on sending humans to Mars, and all those have timelines. We have people actively working in centers across the country to ensure that this happens."