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Quietly Soaring into History: First African American in Space

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As August 30 approaches, a significant anniversary in American history may come along virtually unnoticed, just as it almost did twenty-seven years ago. Two months after Sally K. Ride rode into history as the first American woman in space, a shy Philadelphia-born African American also flew into history on the next space shuttle mission. The media, even magazine covers, celebrated the milestone of the first American woman in space with fanfare, but in comparison, the next space milestone received little attention. Considering his quiet and humble demeanor, this may have suited him just fine. Who is this, you ask? Colonel Guion (Guy) S. Bluford Jr., the first African American in space.

STS-8

Guy Bluford with STS-8 Mission Crew, Challenger (1983)

Reluctant to be in the spotlight, Bluford was a 40-year-old Air Force officer with a doctorate in Aerospace Engineering. His goal was not to become the first African American in space, but simply to fly into space, do his job there, and return safely. Growing up in a middle-class household with educated parents in the 1950s and 1960s, he was raised to believe that he could do anything he wanted despite his race. His mother was a teacher and his father, a mechanical engineer. While enjoying math and science, he still had to work hard in school. Ignoring the advice of his high school advisor to learn a trade or skill, Bluford went on to college to earn his undergraduate degree in Aerospace Engineering at Penn State University in 1964.

The 1960s was a hotbed of unrest in the midst of the Vietnam War as well as the Civil Rights movement, but Guy Bluford did not see the color of his skin as a barrier to achieving his goals in life. Always having a love for all things aviation, he achieved his lifelong dream of becoming a pilot and earned his wings from the Air Force in 1966. Bluford went to Vietnam and flew 144 combat missions. He logged over 5,200 hours piloting an assortment of aircraft including the F-4C jet fighter (very similar to the F-4S on view at the Udvar-Hazy Center), F-15, U-2/TR-1 (similar to the U-2C on view at the National Mall Building) and F-5A/B, as well as the T-33, T-37, and T-38 trainers. As a member of the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron, he came home decorated with medals. After returning to the United States, he went back to school, earning his masters and doctorate in Aerospace Engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology.

In 1977, Bluford applied for the astronaut corps, and he was one of 35 candidates selected from almost 8,000 applicants in 1978. Among the new astronauts were two other African-Americans, Dr. Ronald E. McNair and Lt. Colonel Fredrick D. Gregory, and six women, including Sally Ride. Of the three African Americans, Bluford knew there was a chance that he would be the first one in space but never made that his goal. He said, “All of us knew that one of us would eventually step into that role. . .I probably told people that I would probably prefer not being in that role. . .because I figured being the No. 2 guy would probably be a lot more fun.”

Guy Bluford

Guy Bluford as a new astronaut

Historically, astronauts were selected from a pool of white male test pilots. NASA’s inclusion of scientists, engineers and medical doctors in the selection criteria for shuttle missions opened the way to a more diverse astronaut corps, attracting qualified women and minorities. Bluford joined the crew of STS-8 as mission specialist (scientist astronaut), further changing the public face of NASA. He occupied the same seat behind the pilot as Sally Ride. His job was to deploy a communications-weather satellite, perform biomedical experiments, and test the shuttle’s 50-foot robotic arm.

Despite his modesty, Bluford accepted the importance of his role as a pioneer. On August 30, 1983, Guy Bluford joined the ranks of other prominent African American aviators: Bessie Coleman, Eugene Bullard, Chauncey Spencer, and Alfred Anderson. He flew on three more shuttle missions in 1985, 1991, and 1992, spending almost 800 hours in space. After retiring from the Air Force and leaving NASA, Bluford has served in the corporate sector as a senior manager in aerospace and engineering firms. Since his first flight, thirteen other African Americans have become astronauts, including the first African American woman in space, Mae C. Jemison.

Truly and Bluford asleep on middeck

Commander Richard Truly and Mission Specialist Guy Bluford asleep on Challenger middeck, STS-8 mission.

Despite the muted press coverage of Bluford’s historic mission in 1983, NASA and the media had well noted the passing of gender and race barriers in 1978 when the new class of astronauts was introduced. To commemorate this achievement, mannequins of Sally Ride and Guy Bluford in their own flight suits stand side-by-side in the Moving Beyond Earth gallery of the National Air and Space Museum.

Vickie Lindsey is a summer intern in the Space History Division.

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5 thoughts on “Quietly Soaring into History: First African American in Space

  1. Beautifully written and well done! I remember when those milestones were reached in the space program and watched most of the shuttle launches that were broadcast on TV.

  2. Guy Bluford as a new astronaut – thank you for the article on Guy. It is not the color of the skin but the contribution that an individual can give to society no matter the skin they are in. This article will truly encourages others who have a desire to aspire in exploring AirSpace.

  3. Dear Smithsonian,
    Thank you. This brought back great memories for me as I witnessed this historic mission from a sight near the launch pad at the Cape. My dad worked for NASA in Huntsville and took my brother, my mom and me to see this incredible night launch. We were bussed out to the viewing stand in the middle of the very muggy night, and the heat lightning was visible in the distance. I will never forget the sound, the power, and excitement of witnessing this launch…and how quickly the shuttle was up and out….The fact that it was the Challenger makes it even more meaningful to me now…knowing how dangerous these missions were…and are..even today. Mr. Bluford is truly an American hero!! God Bless him and his family.

    Let’s get our men and women back into space now!!

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