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Quietly Soaring into History: First African American in Space

Posted on Tue, August 24 2010
  • by: Vickie Lindsey is a summer intern in the Space History Division.
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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.
Official STS-8 crew portrait
Official STS-8 Crew Portrait in flight suits.

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
Guion S. Bluford

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.

Richard \"Dick" Truly and Guy Bluford, STS-8
Truly and Bluford asleep on middeck

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.