In 1969, 13-year-old Bernard Harris sat in front of a small black and white television set and dreamed of one day venturing into space as he watched Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin walk on the moon.
"I watched something that changed my life when I saw that," Harris told 600 Wagner Middle School students Friday morning. "I got excited about following in their footsteps."
On the latest stop of his Dream Tour, aimed at middle schoolers, Harris encouraged Wagner's students to dream big.
"My new mission is to enable people to follow their dreams, just like I did," said Harris, 55.
Harris, "a black kid from a broken home" in Temple, Texas, as he wrote in his recently published autobiography, Dream Walker: A Journey of Achievement and Inspiration, first had his dream of being an astronaut at a time when black people were just attaining full civil rights.
"I did not let that deter me," Harris told the students at Wagner, in the city's Olney section. "I was going to do it anyway."
Despite personal and societal odds against him, Harris realized his dream on Feb. 9, 1995, when he became the first African American to walk in space.
Since 2008, about 12 years after leaving NASA, Harris has been making about 10 stops around the country each year on his Dream Tour, which was created by his Harris Foundation and receives funding from the ExxonMobil Foundation.
He fascinated Wagner students with stories from his first trip to space in 1993, and from his historic walk in space two years later on his second mission.
"I did not set out to be the first African American to walk in space," Harris said. "A secondary benefit was the historical significance of my walk."
He also uses his tour to inspire students to study science and math.
"Make sure you get the message," Harris said, "whatever goal you have in life, you're going to have to have expertise in math and science."
He then selected seventh grader Jared Fleming and eighth grader Tianiqua Jenkins as volunteers, but did not initially tell them what they had volunteered for.
"You never know what's going to happen," Jenkins said, describing her anticipation as she waited for Harris to proceed with his demonstration.
Two NASA space shuttle seats were unveiled on stage, and Harris explained to Jenkins and Fleming that they were going to experience how astronauts sit before takeoff, without wearing the 120-pound space suits.
The seats resembled car seats, and had their backs on the ground, forcing the students to face the ceiling.
A countdown from 5 commenced on the stage's projector screen as the other students counted along, "5. . . 4. . . 3. . . 2. . . 1. . . Liftoff!" Some dry ice created the effect of smoke billowing out from a spaceship taking off.
"I started out like a lot of these kids I talk to," Harris said in an interview.
He said he hoped young people realize they can make their dreams come true no matter what obstacles they face.
"You can overturn adversity," he said. "It's not how you start life, it's how you choose to live it."
As long as they develop a strong work ethic as well: "It's not easy for sure," Harris said. "It's going to take a lot of hard work and you'd better be willing to put the time in."
Jenkins said Harris' presentation had encouraged her.
"I'm applying for a science high school," she said. "I want to be a doctor."