Black Wings

Modern Era — Joining the Astronaut Corps

Bernard Harris and Michael Foale prepare to leave airlock

In 1945, at the end of World War II, African Americans assumed a more active role in aviation. A number of talented pilots entered the world of general aviation.

In time, black pilots also made their way into commercial aviation, an important breakthrough accelerated by the Supreme Court case of Marlon Green who sought acceptance as a commercial pilot in one of the major airlines. Black military pilots made significant contributions to both the Korean and Vietnam wars. With the advent of the space program, African Americans finally made their way into the astronaut corps, serving in a variety of technical and flying roles. The appointment of astronaut Charles Bolden as the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) became an important benchmark in the ever-expanding role of African Americans in aerospace.

Guion "Guy" Bluford

Guion "Guy" Bluford was the first African American to participate fully as a member of the NASA astronaut corps.

Bluford demonstrated an early interest in aeronautics, building model aircraft and dreaming of a career in aviation. He pursued his passion for aeronautics, graduating in 1964 with a degree in aeronautical engineering. Prior to joining NASA, he had flown F-4C fighters for the U. S. Air Force in Vietnam, completing 144 air combat missions.

Bluford's training as a fighter pilot coincided with the deepening U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. While on active duty, he earned numerous medals, including the Air Force Commendation medal.

Given his stellar career and academic credentials, Bluford joined NASA space program in 1978. On his inaugural flight on August 30, 1983, he orbited Earth 98 times.


Guy Bluford

Mae C. Jemison

Mae C. Jemison became a prominent African American astronaut with her varied interests in science, photography, and languages. She flew as a mission specialist on the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992, completing 127 orbits of Earth.


Mae Jemison

Ronald McNair

Pioneering black astronaut Ronald McNair gave his life in one of the most tragic episodes in the history of the space age: the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986.

McNair joined the astronaut corps in 1978. Holding a doctorate in physics from MIT, McNair participated as a mission specialist in NASA's space shuttle program in the 1980s. At the time of his death, McNair had completed nine successful shuttle missions.


Ronald McNair

Charles Bolden

Charles F. Bolden graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1968. Bolden served as a pilot with the Naval Test Center before joining NASA as an astronaut.

Bolden was also a part of the early contingent of black astronauts, serving as a pilot on the Orbiters Columbia (STS-61C in 1986) and Discovery (STS-31 in 1990) and, finally, as the mission commander on the Orbiter Atlantis (STS-45 in 1992).


Charles Bolden