When he was in middle school, Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr. dreamed of living in space. A month ago, he logged 239 hours in space during the shuttle Discovery's rendezvous mission with a Russian space station.
Yesterday, he told a group of MacArthur Middle School students that space could be in their future, too, if they study hard and hold onto their dreams.
"I wouldn't have any of these opportunities without one thing: I had a dream about living in space," said the 38-year-old astronaut. The 30-minute talk, one of a string of motivational speeches Dr. Harris delivers, was his fourth of the day.
Earlier he spoke at schools in suburban Washington and later in the afternoon he would speak at Pershing Hill Elementary School, where he has a family connection. A niece and a nephew attend Pershing Hill. Another niece attends MacArthur.
The Houston resident has been in Washington with crew members from his last mission for a week's worth of meetings with President Clinton and congressional leaders.
On that mission, Dr. Harris became the first black to walk in space, when he spent 4 1/2 hours outside tinkering with a satellite.
Dressed in an ocean blue jump suit stitched with patches from his missions, he told the 1,200 seventh- and eighth-graders yesterday how he studied astronomy when he was their age, read science fiction and watched "Star Trek." And he told them that space is in their future, too, regardless of their careers.
"Some of you will live on lunar colonies. Some of you who choose to will be able to travel to Mars," he said. "Even if you don't go to the moon, you'll be affected by what is being done there."
Dr. Harris said his dream of being an astronaut also came with a plan. He focused on math and science courses throughout his schooling. He decided to pursue medicine, a second passion, when he found out that physicians were needed to fly missions.
After graduating from the Texas Tech University School of Medicine in 1982 and finishing his residency at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, he worked at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. and then the Johnson Space Center in Houston as a flight surgeon.
Three years later, he became an astronaut. He flew his first mission in space in April 1993 aboard the shuttle Columbia.
After Dr. Harris' talk, students swarmed the podium, asking for his autograph.
"I like space. I like to learn about the stars and the planets," said 13-year-old Chantal Parker, an eighth-grader. "Science is my favorite subject."
Like many of her classmates, she said she wants to see space for her self.
"I want to see what the planets look like instead of on a map," said 12-year-old Steven Carney of the seventh grade. "I'm thinking about going up there anyways. I saw on TV about a space camp and I got a brochure."
Dr. Harris is the second astronaut to speak to the students in as many weeks. Charles Bolden Jr., who commanded a Discovery shuttle mission, visited the week before. Both were invited by the Student Government Association. "Kids today, you can't just teach them, but you need to motivate them, too," said SGA adviser and science teacher Christine Davenport. "You need to bring in real, live people. By having two astronauts in the last two weeks give talks, they're excited."