Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Man Who Went To Space

Bernard Harris is the first African-American to go to space. The astronaut talks about his experiences

By Shevlin Sebastian

Bernard Harris opens the hatch of the space shuttle, Discovery, and steps out. He is wearing a white Extra Vehicular Activity suit, which weighs 159 kgs on earth, but is weightless in space. He gets onto a robotic arm which lifts him up. “So now I am 35 feet above the shuttle,” he says. “I can see the earth, which is blue and white, and looks beautiful. And behind the planet is a sea of stars of the Milky Way. It is the most incredible view I have ever seen.”

One of the primary experiences for Bernard is the lack of gravity. “When there is no gravity, physically you feel free,” says Bernard, who had come to Kochi to be a featured speaker for the TiE Con Kerala event. “You are not confined to operating in a two-dimensional space. Inside the shuttle, if I wanted to go from one side to the other, all I had to do was to press my fingers against the wall and soon I was gliding across. It was a novel experience.”

Eating was easy, but sleeping difficult. “We are used to sleeping on a bed, which is anchored by gravity,” says Bernard. “But in space, the sleeping bags are tethered to the wall or the ceiling. Breathing is easy, but there is a nagging headache for the first two days.”

That is because one-fifth of the blood, in the legs, which is usually held down by gravity, moves up and reaches the tissues of the face and makes it look puffy. The fluid also fills the nasal passages and most astronauts have a head cold. “We don't think as clearly,” says Bernard.

Astronauts also grow an inch or two in space. “One reason is that we do not have the weight of the body,” says Bernard. “The extra water goes into the tissues in the discs in the spinal cord and stretches the spine.”

The mission, which began on February 9, 1995, included a rendezvous with Mir, the Russian Space Station, the retrieval of a damaged satellite, as well as an investigation into the long-term effects on the human body while being in space.

Not surprisingly, as Bernard beheld majesty of space, he had a spiritual elevation. “I have always believed in a higher being,” he says. “In space, everything is perfect. The planets, the solar system and the galaxies – all this did not happen by accident. There has to be some higher power which orchestrated all this. My faith in God deepened.”

Not many people know that going to space was the fulfillment of a childhood dream for Bernard. It started in 1969 when he was 13 years old. On a black and white television set, he saw astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin [Buzz] Aldrin land on the moon. It was a tremendous moment for Bernard when Armstrong said, 'This is one small step for man, and a giant leap for mankind'. He decided that he would follow in the footsteps of these great men. “It was a leap of faith which I took,” he says. And unlike most people, Bernard was able to fulfill this childhood dream of travelling in a space shuttle.

The shuttle is a fascinating vehicle,” he says. “It takes about seven million pounds of thrust out of five engines to get off the ground. As the force hits the ground, we are going so fast in the opposite direction that by the time we clear the launch tower we are going faster than the speed of sound.”

In two minutes they reach an altitude of 1 lakh feet. That is about three times higher than what most aircraft fly. “We are now above most of the atmosphere,” he says. “We are going from 2500, to 5000, 15,000 to 17,000 miles an hour till we reach zero gravity. At this moment it is so wonderful to get out of the seat, look out of the window, and see the Earth.”

Bernard is only one of 538 people who have been in outer space. In fact, he is the first African-American to do a spacewalk. In a career spanning 19 years, Bernard logged 438 hours and travelled 72 lakh miles in space.

Asked the qualities needed to be a good astronaut, he says, “He or she should have the ability to learn new things. When I became an astronaut I had to learn how to fly jets, to survive in different environments, and to parachute from an aeroplane towards land as well as water. You also have to be a stable person. In other words, you have to learn to keep your emotions under control.”

Apart from being an astronaut, Bernard is a qualified doctor, a former associate Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas, as well as an author of several scientific publications. Bernard is now the Chief Executive Officer of Vesalius Ventures, Inc., a venture capital firm.

Bernard also has his heart in the right place. He has set up the Harris Foundation, which helps economically disadvantaged students, the majority of whom are African-American, Latino and Hispanic students. “It is not about skin colour,” he says. “We also reach out to white students in rural areas. Unfortunately, the majority of the poor are African Americans.”

Bernard has also won numerous awards, including honorary doctorates from several American universities. A fellow of the American College of Physicians, he has received the NASA Space Flight Medal, a NASA Award of Merit, and the 2000 Horatio Alger Award.

All of us have talents and abilities,” he says. “Every individual was born to do something special. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

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