Read on to learn more about Dr. Bernard A. Harris’ thoughts on science, technology, engineering, and math education, as well as the future of the space program—exclusive tidbits that didn’t make the magazine.
SCOUTING: How do science, technology, engineering, and math affect our everyday lives?
Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr.: There are so many things that are a part of our lives that we don’t realize. The chemistry that’s involved in your sweater and my sweater, the colors the materials, the lenses that you’re wearing with your glasses, the chemicals that we use, such as soap.
I’m a medical doctor, and patients for whom I’ve recommended pacemakers suddenly become technologists. They never thought about what goes into a pacemaker and all the science, technology, and innovation that created it. But here’s this little device that fits inside the chest and keeps millions of folks alive each year. Again, that’s technology. But here’s the thing to me that’s most disturbing: We’ve gotten away from that in this country.
SCOUTING: You mean the innovation?
B.H.: Yes. We’re not the innovators we were 20 years ago. To innovate requires knowledgeable individuals, and our knowledge is not there anymore. We’re not inquisitive enough.
Just to underscore that, go to the U.S. patent office as I did a few years ago. Some people have done studies showing that the majority of patents 20 years ago were issued to U.S. born inventors. Today, about 60 percent of the patents are awarded to individuals outside the United States. That should tell you something.
SCOUTING: But doesn’t the process of educating students in STEM topics require a large financial commitment?
B.H.: It does. Which we are not getting right now because we are in a recession. You go to every state, and every governor—with some exceptions, in my opinion—is sacrificing our future because they are cutting back on our education programs. I think if that goes on for too long, it’s going to have a tremendous impact 10 to 15 years from now.
SCOUTING: What would you say to a student who wants to be an astronaut now that NASA has shut down the Space Shuttle program? What are that boy’s chances of going into space someday?
B.H.: First of all, shutting down the shuttle program was necessary because it was aging. The new program, which is being led by private industry, is going to allow us more ways to get into space. We’ll have several companies rather than just one shuttle.
I know of at least five companies that are building different types of vehicles to get us there. With those vehicles, there will be this ecosystem developing from a business standpoint. The free market will drive down the cost of getting into space, and more people will have the opportunity to go. So I think there will be an expansion for young people who want to go into these fields.
SCOUTING: Do the students you talk to seem receptive to your message?
B.H.: Very receptive. The good thing about being an astronaut who’s flown in space and walked in space is that it gives me a platform to get their attention. Once I get their attention, and I lay out my case, it’s amazing to see the light bulb go off in the young people’s minds. It’s palpable.
—John R. Clark