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C.C. Cooke Second Graders Experience an Astronomical Opportunity


                C.C. Cooke second graders will have a conversation with an astronaut among their 2020-21 school year memories.

                Through space-age technology, students participated in a Zoom call with Dr. Bernard Harris, the first African-American to walk in space, and conduct an experiment in space. As a NASA astronaut from 1990-96, Harris served on two Discovery Space Shuttle missions, logging more than 438 hours—and more than 7 million miles. On his 1993 flight into space, he served as a mission specialist; in 1995, he was the Payload Commander.

                A native Texan, Harris began his career as a physician and trained as a flight surgeon at the Aerospace School of Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base. For more than 25 years his efforts have been focused on inspiring and engaging students and teachers in math and science through community-based STEM programs and initiatives.

                “I was inspired by the first mission to the moon,” Harris told students. “I was 13. Watching Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walk on the moon really inspired me. When I was your age, I liked to explore and learn. “

                Harris, who spent six years of his childhood on a Navajo reservation, where his educator mother worked with Native Americans, said one of his favorite things about being an astronaut was coming back to earth and sharing his stories of space and adventure. Among his many space-age moments was a very down-to-earth experience.

                “When we lifted off on my first mission to space, we were halfway in when there was a big noise—the whole vehicle shook.” Harris said. “I thought something was very wrong. As it turned out, the wastewater tank had ruptured. So there we were in orbit with a broken toilet that needed to be fixed. Sometimes astronauts have to also be maintenance men and women.”

                Harris fielded numerous questions from the six classrooms of Cooke second graders, ranging from what does it feel like to be in space, how do you sleep and what kind of food do you eat, to his possible possession of a moon rock and what it takes to become an astronaut.

                From being propelled into space atop five million pounds of thrust, to sleeping in a special bag attached to the wall of the space ship, to out of this world views of Mars, Saturn and the Moon, Harris values his “dream” experiences—and wants students to dream as well. Among his favorite encounters was a conversation with John Glenn, the first astronaut to orbit the earth. One of his major contributors as a member of NASA was the development of in-flight medical devices to extend astronauts’ time in space.

                “Just say ‘talk to me about space,’ and I’m in,” he said. “Being an astronaut was the most fun job I have ever had. I love talking about space with kids and answering their questions. When I’m asked about the qualifications to become an astronaut, I tell people it’s so important to be able to work with others. As an astronaut, we work in teams.”

                He also confesses to being a dreamer—and wants children to do the same. A published author, Harris’ book on his life experiences are chronicled in “Dream Walker: A Journey of Achievement and Inspiration.”

                “As a dreamer, I often encourage young people that nothing is impossible, if you believe in your dreams,” he said. “For that to happen, we as educators and education advocates must provide students with the tools to empower their dreams. Ultimately, we will all benefit through those accomplishments.”

                Cooke second grade teacher Erin Bell “landed” Harris as a guest speaker. She admits to having an inside connection to the veteran astronaut through her husband.

                “Through a partnership with ExxonMobil, Dr. Harris coordinated a series of summer science space camps engaging students in STEM activities,” Bell said. “My husband’s father is an executive with ExxonMobil and worked with Dr. Harris on these programs, in which my husband got to participate.”

                “This was such a great opportunity for our students to meet an astronaut, particularly Dr. Harris, who cares so much about education,” she said. “Having this visit from him gave them something tangible from so many perspectives. That’s very important to me.”