Dr. Guion Bluford: The First African American in Space Despite Wanting to be Number 2February 26, 2021
Dr. Guion Bluford, otherwise known as “Guy”, first entered space in 1983 on the STS-8 Challenger mission making him the first African American person to even enter space1.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 22, 1942, Dr. Bluford earned multiple degrees leading toward his goal of flight, the first of which came in 1964 when he earned a BS in Aerospace Engineering from Pennsylvania State University1,2,3. After graduation, Dr. Bluford became a pilot in the Air Force where he flew in almost 150 combat missions as an F4C pilot and eventually became a T-38 instructor pilot at a Texas base1,3.
A decade after earning his BS degree and only four years prior to his selection as an astronaut, Dr. Bluford returned to higher education to obtain an MS in Aerospace Engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 19741. Dr. Bluford then joined the Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory as Deputy for Advanced Concepts for the Aeromechanics Division where he was later promoted to Branch Chief of the Lab’s Aerodynamics and Airframe Branch3. In 1978, the same year he was selected for NASA’s astronaut program, Dr. Bluford also earned a PhD in Aerospace Engineering with a minor in laser physics from the Air Force Institute of Technology3.
As a NASA astronaut, Dr. Bluford spent 2 years training before his first mission when he climbed aboard the STS-8 Challenger for his first mission into space on August 30, 1983 making him the first African American person in space1,4,5.
“I felt an awesome responsibility, and I took the responsibility very seriously, of being a role model and opening another door to black Americans, but the important thing is not that I am black, but that I did a good job as a scientist and an astronaut,” Dr. Bluford said in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer. “There will be black astronauts flying in later missions … and they, too, will be people who excel, not simply who are black . . . who can ably represent their people, their communities, their country.4,6”
While Dr. Bluford recognized the significance of this title, he never planned on or wanted to be the first African American in space as Ron McNair, whose life was lost in the Challenger explosion, and Fred Gregory, NASA’s first African American Deputy Administrator, were also in Dr. Bluford’s astronautical class4, 5.
"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," Dr. Bluford said in an interview with NASA on remembering his 1983 first launch into space. “People came from all over to watch this launch because I was flying. I imagined them, all standing out there at one o'clock in the morning with their umbrellas, all asking the same question, 'Why am I standing here?'"5.
Dr. Bluford went on to become the first African American person to return to space a second, third, and fourth time on the 1985 STS-61A, 1991 STS-39, and 1992 STS-53 flights3, 6. In between his second and third trips into space, Dr. Bluford earned an MBA from the University of Houston, Clear Lake in 19871, 3, 6. After retiring from the Air Force and NASA following his last flight, Dr. Bluford took on many private leadership roles in engineering including becoming the Vice President of Microgravity Research and Development and Operations for the Northrop Grumman Corporation, served on boards focused on space flight such as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 20105.
“I’ve come to appreciate the planet we live on,” Dr. Bluford said. “It’s a small ball in a large universe. It’s a very fragile ball but also very beautiful. You don’t recognize that until you see it from a little farther off.4”
Over the curse of his career, Dr. Bluford logged more than 650 hours in space, over 5,200 hours in jet aircrafts, and inspired an immeasurable number of people3.
"I wanted to set the standard,” Dr. Bluford said to NASA, “…do the best job possible so that other people would be comfortable with African-Americans flying in space and African-Americans would be proud of being participants in the space program and…encourage others to do the same.5"
Capitol Tech's focus on STEM education includes robust engineering programs, including an astronautical engineering degree, and offers students the opportunity to work in the on-campus Space Flight Operations Training Center (SFOTC), a lab space built to train students for NASA launches and designed to allow students hands-on experience in all aspects of spacecraft missions.
- Space Center Houston. (2019, February 1). Astronaut Friday: Guion “Guy” Bluford, Jr.. Retrieved from https://spacecenter.org/astronaut-friday-guion-guy-bluford-jr/.
- NASA. Biographical Data. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/bluford_guion.pdf.
- Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. (2021). GUION S. BLUFORD, JR. Retrieved from https://www.astronautscholarship.org/Astronauts/guion-s-bluford-jr/.
- New Mexico Museum of Space History. (2021). Guion S. Bluford Jr. Retrieved from https://www.nmspacemuseum.org/inductee/guion-s-bluford-jr/.
- NASA. (2017, August 7). Guy Bluford Remembered 30 Years Later. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/vision/space/workinginspace/bluford_1st_african_amer.html.
- Howell, E. (2017, February 8). Guion Bluford: First African-American in Space. Retrieved from https://www.space.com/25602-guion-bluford-biography.html.
Photo from New Mexico Museum of Space History.