In late August 1983, a soft-spoken Philadelphia-born African American man flew into history. Despite launch delays totaling six weeks, the spectacular first night launch (and later first night landing) of a Space Shuttle brought full circle NASA’s promise of a more inclusive astronaut corps. Following Sally Ride (America’s first female astronaut) by just two months, the STS-8 mission provided another visible moment when more young people could see and be inspired by people like themselves flying into space.

Dr. Guy Bluford launched on the STS-8 mission on August 30, 1983, becoming the first African American in space. Bluford served as a mission specialist and his jobs were to deploy an Indian communications-weather satellite, perform biomedical experiments, and test the orbiter’s 50-foot robotic arm. Following that first mission, he flew three more times to space on STS-61A, STS-39, and STS-53. By the time of his retirement from NASA in 1993, Bluford had spent more than 28 days in space over the four missions. 

The crew of STS-8 at Pad 39A a few weeks before launch. From left to right: Mission specialists Dale A. Gardner, Dr. Guion S. Bluford, and Dr. William E. Thornton; pilot Daniel C. Brandenstein; and commander Richard F. Truly.

At the time of his first mission, Bluford was a 40-year-old Air Force officer with a doctorate in aerospace engineering. Reluctant to be in the spotlight, his goal was not to make history, but fly into space, do his job, and return safely. Growing up in a middle-class household in the 1950s and 1960s with educated parents (his mother was a teacher, and his father was a mechanical engineer), Bluford was raised to believe that he could do anything he wanted despite racist social restrictions. He enjoyed math and science particularly 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, also finishing as a distinguished Air Force ROTC graduate.  

With a love for aviation, Bluford achieved his dream of becoming a pilot in 1966 when he earned his Air Force wings. He completed F-4C combat training and was assigned to the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, flying 144 combat missions during his deployment. He returned from Vietnam decorated with medals. With his tour complete, he was assigned to the 3630th Training Wing at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, as a T-39A instructor pilot. Over the course of his Air Force career, Bluford logged over 5,200 hours piloting a variety of aircraft including the F-4C jet fighter, F-15, U-2/TR-1. and F-5A/B, as well as the T-33, T-37, and T-38 trainers. Over 1,300 of his flight hours were as a T-38 instructor pilot.  

During his time as an instructor, Bluford went back to school, earning his masters and doctoral degrees in aerospace engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology. During that time, he worked at the Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as a staff development engineer. In 1977, Bluford applied to NASA to join the first class of astronauts intended to fly space shuttle missions. He became one of 35 candidates selected from almost 8,000 applicants. For the Mercury and Gemini programs, astronaut classes were all white male test pilots. Beginning with Apollo and Skylab missions, NASA expanded its selections to include scientists, engineers, and medical doctors, who were seen as better suited to carry out the vast number of experiments to be done in space. NASA made a particular effort to recruit and select women and people of color for the 1978 class, creating a more diverse astronaut office. 

Ronald McNair, Guion Bluford, and Frederick Gregory, NASA's first Black astronauts, from the 1978 astronaut class.

Among the astronauts in the Class of 1978, known by the nickname of the “Thirty-Five New Guys,” were two other African American candidates, Dr. Ronald E. McNair and Lt. Col. Fredrick D. Gregory; NASA’s first Asian American astronaut, Ellison Onizuka; and six women, including Dr. Sally K. Ride, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Dr. Rhea Seddon, Dr. Shannon Lucid, Dr. Anna Fisher, and Dr. Judith Resnik. Gregory and Bluford both had strong flight backgrounds, but Gregory was selected as a pilot astronaut and Bluford in the new “mission specialist” category that included more scientific and technical work during missions.

As one of NASA’s first Black astronaut candidates, Bluford knew there was a chance that he would be the first one in space, but never made that his goal: “All of us knew that one of us would eventually step into that role,” he has reflected on it. “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.” His humble upbringing meant he cherished the experience and his contributions to spaceflight far more than any celebrity it might bring. 

Dr. Col. Guion Stewart Bluford Jr. (Image courtesy of NASA)

After his decades of service to the aerospace community in a variety of roles, having spoken dozens of times about his astronaut career and work in aviation, Dr. Guion Bluford was recently appointed by President Joseph Biden as a member of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Advisory Board. We welcome him as a contributor to our ongoing mission to commemorate, educate, and inspire the next generation of aviation and spaceflight enthusiasts, and know that he shares our vision to help build a generation of innovators and explorers.

This is an updated version of a blog written and first published in 2010 by space history intern Vickie Lindsey. 


Related Topics Spaceflight Human spaceflight Space Shuttle program People African American or Black people Records and Firsts
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