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First African American in space: Guion Bluford

Guion Stewart “Guy” Bluford Jr. was born in Philadelphia, Penn., in 1942.

He enrolled in Pennsylvania State University as a member of the Air Force ROTC, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in aerospace engineering from Pennsylvania State University in 1964.

After commissioning, Bluford attended pilot training at Williams Air Force Base, Ariz. Upon earning his Air Force pilot’s wings and commercial pilot’s license, Bluford went to F-4C combat training. He was assigned to the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 12th Tactical Fighter Wing, in Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam, and flew 144 combat missions. He won several medals for his service, including the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm.

Bluford exercising on the treadmill in the middeck of space shuttle Challenger during the STS-8 mission. (NASA photograph)

In July 1967, Bluford was assigned to the 3630th Flying Training Wing, Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, as a T-38A instructor pilot. He served as a standardization/evaluation officer and as an assistant flight commander. In early 1971, he attended Squadron Officer School and returned as an executive support officer to the Deputy Commander of Operations and as School Secretary for the Wing.

In August 1972, Bluford entered the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology residency school at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Upon graduating in 1974 with his master’s degree, he was assigned to the Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, as a staff development engineer. He served as deputy for advanced concepts for the Aeromechanics Division and as branch chief of the Aerodynamics and Airframe Branch in the Laboratory. He has written and presented several scientific papers in the area of computational fluid dynamics.

While in the Air Force, Bluford logged more than 5,200 hours of jet flight time in the T-33, T-37, T-38, F-4C, U-2/TR-1, and F-5A/B aircraft, including 1,300 hours as a T-38 instructor pilot. He also has an FAA commercial pilot license. When he left the Air Force, he was a colonel.

In January 1978, NASA selected its largest group of astronauts up to that time, 35 pilots and mission specialists, for the space shuttle program then under development.

For the first time, NASA included women and minorities in the selection group, including three African-Americans — Ronald E. McNair, Bluford and Frederick D. Gregory, one pilot and two mission specialists.

Bluford, right rear, with his fellow STS-8 crew members. (NASA photograph)

In 1983, as a mission specialist aboard Space Shuttle Challenger’s STS-8 mission, Bluford became the first African American in space. During the six-day flight that featured the first night launch and night landing of the shuttle program, the astronauts deployed a communications satellite for India and performed tests with the remote manipulator system.

Bluford returned to space in October 1985 on Challenger’s STS-61A flight, serving as a mission specialist on Spacelab D1, a scientific mission sponsored by the West German space agency. The flight marked the first and so far only time that eight astronauts launched aboard a single spacecraft. During their seven days in orbit, the international crew conducted 75 experiments in a variety of scientific disciplines.

Making his third trip into space, Bluford launched about space shuttle Discovery in April 1991 on STS-39, the first flight to carry five mission specialists. During the eight-day unclassified mission for the Department of Defense, Bluford and his crewmates divided into two teams working around the clock. They conducted a series of observations of Earth’s upper atmosphere and its interactions with the shuttle orbiter. The mission’s unusually high 57-degree orbital inclination allowed the astronauts to observe most of the Earth’s landmasses. Using the shuttle’s remote manipulator system, they deployed and retrieved the Shuttle Pallet Satellite-II that conducted independent observations for two days, including monitoring shuttle thruster and engine firings.

For his fourth and final spaceflight, Bluford lifted off aboard space shuttle Discovery in December 1992. During the seven-day STS-53 flight, the final mission dedicated to the DOD, Bluford and his four crewmates deployed the third Satellite Data System-2 military communications satellite and conducted several unclassified experiments. On his four missions, he logged 688 hours of spaceflight time.

Bluford retired from NASA in 1993 to join the private sector.

Bluford, lower right, with the rest of the eight-member international STS-61A crew. (NASA photograph)
Bluford, lower right, with the rest of the eight-member international STS-61A crew. (NASA photograph)
Guion S. ‘Guy’ Bluford, left, working on an experiment during the Spacelab D1 mission. (NASA photograph)

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