Veteran Astronaut Speaks to Campers

  • Aug. 8, 2012, 2:16 p.m.

Veteran Astronaut Speaks to Campers

When he was 13 years old, Dr. Bernard Harris watched on television as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first steps for humankind on the moon, a moment that changed his life.

“As I looked at that television, I realized what I wanted to do in life,” Harris said. “It was my dream to follow in their footsteps."

On Monday, June 11, Harris shared this story with 48 students at the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp held on the University of Oklahoma campus. Precollegiate Programs at OU, within the College of Professional and Continuing Education, partnered with the Harris Foundation and the ExxonMobil Foundation to offer the two-week, all-expenses-paid academic camp for underrepresented middle school students in the area. The camp immerses them in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

In addition to being an astronaut, Harris is also a medical doctor and venture capitalist. Harris traveled to space twice, in 1993 and 1995. The second time, he became the first African-American to walk in space. He re-enforced the importance of education and discussed how some people doubted his decision to become an astronaut, especially following the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986. Harris said life is about taking chances and risks.

“To me, having dreams and achieving those dreams is what life is all about,” Harris said. After hearing from Harris, the campers participated in a “Space Suit Challenge” where they used a combination of transparency film, wax paper, foam, paper, and aluminum foil to create a 14-layer prototype swatch of a space suit. The nine groups’ swatches were then tested using an “impact tester” to see how many layers were penetrated.

Aaron Burnan, a 6th grader at Choctaw Middle School in Choctaw, Okla., found the Space Suit Challenge to be “really exciting and fun,” especially since his group ended up winning.

Since her best subject in school is science, Baylee Tassey thought the camp sounded fun when her mom told her about it. The 8th grader at Choctaw Middle School in Choctaw, Okla., also enjoyed the opportunity to hear Harris speak. Campers at the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Science Camp 

“I thought it was really cool because this is a once in a lifetime experience because I probably won’t ever see him again, and he seems like a really cool person,” Tassey said.

For Malachi Garrett, 8th grader at Belle Isle Enterprise Middle School in Oklahoma City, hearing from Harris gave him a better idea of what he might want to do in life.

“I thought it was pretty good because an astronaut who has been to space came and talked to us, and that made me kind of lean toward wanting to go to space to see all that and experience it,” Garrett said.

The camp started in 1994, and ExxonMobil became involved in 2006, said Kim Fawcett, exploration geologist for ExxonMobil. The company believes it is important to invest in the youths of the areas in which it works. One aspect of this is building up a knowledge base and interest level and giving opportunities to people may not have them otherwise. Fawcett encouraged the campers to always ask lots of questions, stay focused, keep learning and remember at least one thing she had to say: They are all special.

“You are all very high achieving in math and science, and that is going to take you a lot of places, whether you choose to stay in Oklahoma and do things in your community or you travel anywhere in the world or even to outer space,” Fawcett told the campers.

Precollegiate Programs, a department within the College of Professional and Continuing Education, reaches 5,000 youth each year with its array of academic enrichment and leadership programs. For more information about opportunities through Precollegiate Programs, visit