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In 1983, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Guion S. Bluford became the first Black man to travel to space when he participated in the space shuttle Challenger’s third mission. Bluford’s historic achievement paved the way for more than a dozen other Black astronauts in the American space program.
Today, we celebrate Bluford’s birthday, his extraordinary accomplishments and his influential legacy.
Bluford, who was born in Philadelphia in 1942, always knew he wanted to work on airplanes. He graduated from Penn State with a degree in aerospace engineering in 1964 as a distinguished Air Force ROTC graduate, according to NASA. After graduation, he joined the U.S. Air Force and earned his pilot wings in 1966.
While in the Air Force, Bluford attended F-4C combat crew training and was assigned to the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron during the Vietnam War. Bluford flew 144 combat missions during the war, including 65 over North Vietnam.
His flying days didn’t end with the war. After the Vietnam War, Bluford became a flight instructor at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. According to his official biography, Bluford logged more than 5,200 hours of jet time and earned an FAA commercial pilot license.
Bluford returned to school to earn his master’s degree and doctorate in aerospace engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology.
Bluford became a NASA astronaut in 1979 and participated in his first mission on August 30, 1983.
“For astronauts their first flight is generally the thing that’s most exciting for them. That’s the thing that they remember the most,” Bluford reflected in a 2018 video about his historic first space flight. “And I still remember rocketing up, going from zero velocity to 18,000 miles an hour in about eight and a half minutes, so the ride up was exciting. And then the view on orbit is spectacular. You get to see the Earth from 150-260 miles up and you realize how wonderful this planet is.”
The 1983 mission was the first of four missions Bluford would participate in. His second mission, in 1985, was the German D-1 Spacelab mission, which was the first to carry eight crew members into space. He participated in two more missions, in 1991 and 1992. At the end of his career in NASA, Bluford logged more than 688 hours in space.
Paving the Way For Other Black Astronauts
Although he was not the first Black astronaut –– that honor belongs to Maj. Robert H. Lawrence Jr. –– Bluford nevertheless opened the doors for future Black pilots and engineers in the space program.
“I recognized that I was opening the door for other African Americans to fly in space, but I was also part of a team with reference to learning how to fly the shuttle at night, both launch as well as landing,” Bluford said in the 2018 video. “So I take a great deal of pride in that, not only for what we did as a team but also for my contribution to opening the door for other African Americans to fly in space.”
There have been more than a dozen Black astronauts in NASA following Bluford’s notable first flight into space, The New York Times reported. These talented individuals have logged hundreds of hours in space, undertaken groundbreaking research and broken glass ceilings.
The North Star is highlighting three Black astronauts that have done extraordinary work at NASA following Bluford’s time with the space agency:
Charles F. Bolden Jr: Bolden was in the U.S. Marine Corps before joining NASA as an astronaut in 1980. He flew four missions with the space agency, logging nearly 700 hours in space. Bolden, a retired major general in the Marines, was nominated by President Barack Obama to become the first Black American to lead NASA as the 12th administrator of the agency. He resigned from the agency on January 20, 2017.
Mae C. Jemison: Dr. Jemison joined the astronaut program in June 1987. In 1992, she was the science mission specialist aboard the joint U.S.-Japan mission STS-47 Spacelab J, according to NASA. During the eight-day mission, Jemison became the first Black woman in space. She conducted bone cell research during her sole mission and logged 190 hours in space while completing 127 orbits around Earth.
Benjamin Alvin Drew Jr.: Drew was a colonel in the Air Force when he joined NASA in 2000. In May 2007, Drew joined the Endeavour mission along with commander Scott Kelly and five others The Endeavour mission made him the first representative of the astronaut class of 2000 to head into space, according to NBC News. Four years later, Drew became the 200th person to walk in space.
Outreach to Black Americans
NASA has a long way to go to increase the diversity and inclusion of its space programs. In June, Quartz reported that Black engineers are hoping for a growth in inclusion in the return of human spaceflight. These engineers noted that the aerospace industry needs to do a better job of recruiting Black students into their programs, especially those studying at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
There are no programs or initiatives specifically aimed at reaching Black children or aerospace students, other than summer space camps that are open for all children. There is one fellowship program that is available to women: the Brooke Owens Fellowship places women and other gender minorities in internships at space companies.
About the Author
Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe.