Born November 22, 1942 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
American astronaut, engineer, pilot
In the 1950s and 1960s, the early years of the U.S. space program, all astronauts were white males (see Buzz Aldrin [1930–], Neil Armstrong [1930–], and John Glenn [1921–] entries). This situation changed during the late 1960s and 1970s when the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) recognized that many talented scientists were being overlooked by the astronaut training program. Consequently, NASA began opening the application process to minorities and women. Since then, astronauts from these groups have made contributions to space exploration (see Franklin Chang-Diaz [1950–], Mae Jemison [1956–], Shannon Lucid [1943–], Mercury 13, Ellen Ochoa [1958–], and Sally Ride [1951–] entries; also see box on page 37). Among them was Guy Bluford, an aerospace engineer who was one of the first African Americans in space and a pilot on four U.S. space shuttle missions.
"Flying in space is well worth the risks in order to help all of us improve our way of life."
Bluford is frequently hailed as a pioneer, but he has rejected this label. He told an interviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer that he was only one member of a hard-working team: "I felt an awesome responsibility," he said, "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. 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."
Determination pays off
Guion S. (Guy) Bluford Jr. was born in Philadelphia, one of three sons of Guion and Lolita Bluford. Nicknamed "Bunny" as a child, he grew up in a well-educated family in a racially mixed neighborhood. His father, a mechanical engineer, was forced into early retirement by epilepsy (a neurological condition that causes seizures). His mother worked as a special-education teacher in the Philadelphia public schools. Lolita was also related to Carol Brice Carey, a noted singer and voice coach, and Guion Sr. was the brother of the editor of the Kansas City Call newspaper. During his school years Bluford preferred to spend his spare time building model airplanes and working crossword puzzles. Inspired by his father's struggle with ill health, he was determined to become an aeronautics engineer. Although Bluford devoted himself to his studies at Overbrook, a mostly white high school, a guidance counselor once suggested that he might not be college material. Nevertheless, he maintained a C-plus average in difficult math and science courses before graduating in 1960.
In 1960 Bluford was admitted to Pennsylvania State University, where he was the only black student in the engineering school. During his senior year he married Linda Tull, who had also grown up in Philadelphia. After graduating with a bachelor of science degree he enrolled in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) in the U.S. Air Force and attended flight school. He earned his pilot's wings in 1966. By this time the United States had become deeply involved in the Vietnam War (1954–75; a conflict in South Vietnam between government forces aided by the United States and rebel forces aided by North Vietnam). Bluford was assigned to active duty with the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Cam Ram Bay in Vietnam, where he eventually flew 144 combat missions, 65 of them over North Vietnam. During his one-year tour in Vietnam he earned numerous medals and citations, including an air force commendation medal. After returning home as a lieutenant colonel, he was a flight instructor and a test pilot at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas for five years.
"The cloak of prejudice was raised"
A turning point in Bluford's career came when he was chosen to be one of only a few candidates to attend the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), a graduate-education program, near Dayton, Ohio. In 1974 he received a master of science degree in aerospace engineering, and in 1978 he earned a doctoral degree in aerospace engineering with a minor in laser physics. During his years at AFIT he ranked consistently among the top 10 percent of his class. He also continued to work as a test pilot and an instructor for military aviators.
Women and Minority Astronaut Firsts
In the late 1960s and 1970s NASA opened the astronaut training program to women and minorities. The following astronauts from these groups achieved significant "firsts."
Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. (1935–1967) was the first African American to be selected for astronaut training. An air force officer and a test pilot, he was killed during a training flight in 1967. Had Lawrence lived, he probably would have traveled to space in a Gemini B spacecraft.
Sally Ride (1951–) entered the astronaut program in 1978. Five years later she became the first American woman to fly in space, aboard the shuttle Challenger.
Ellison S. Onizuka (1946–1986) was the first Asian American in space. Joining the astronaut corps in 1978, he was a mission specialist on the Discovery space shuttle in 1985. Onizuka died during his second shuttle mission, aboard the Challenger shuttle, which exploded shortly after takeoff in 1986.
California native Ellen Ochoa (1958–) became the first Latina in space in 1993, when she served as the sole female crew member of the Discovery space shuttle. She followed the first Latino astronaut, Mexico native Rodolfo Neri (1952–), who flew his first space shuttle mission in 1985.
Mae Jemison (1956–) was the first African American woman to be admitted to the astronaut training program. Her eight-day flight aboard the shuttle Endeavor in 1992 established her as the first female African American space traveler.
John Bennett Herrington (1958–) made history as the first Native American to walk in space. The flight engineer on the shuttle Endeavor in 2002, he traveled to the International Space Station and installed equipment on the outside of the spacecraft. In honor of his Native American heritage, Herrington carried a Chickasaw Nation flag during the trip.
After receiving his doctorate Bluford applied to the space shuttle program. (A space shuttle is a craft that transports people and cargo between Earth and space.) As one of nearly eight thousand other military personnel competing for only thirty-five openings, he assumed he had little chance of being accepted. He was therefore surprised when he received the call informing him that he was chosen for astronaut training.
Bluford quietly celebrated the news with his wife and two sons. He later told the Philadelphia Inquirer that it was an important moment: He and several other black aviators who are now astronauts "had to be ready in 1977 and 1978, when the doors of opportunity were opened to us and the cloak of prejudice was raised. As black scientists and engineers and aviators, we had to prove that black people could excel."
Bluford completed the training program and was named to the eighth mission of the space shuttle, aboard the Challenger. He was neither the first African American astronaut nor the first black man in space: Robert Lawrence (1935–1967) was the first African American astronaut (see box on page 37), and Cuban astronaut Arnaldo Tamayo-Méndez (1942–) had flown with the Soviet Union's space program. Nevertheless, Bluford was the first African American to be a member of a space flight. After launching from Cape Canaveral in Florida on August 30, 1983, the Challenger crew conducted a variety of experiments during the week-long mission.
Setting a record for the first nighttime shuttle launch and landing, the Challenger touched down at Edwards Air Force Base in California on September 5. Upon returning to Earth, Bluford discovered that he was a national celebrity. He was greeted in a number of America's biggest cities, especially Philadelphia, and was in great demand as a public speaker. Bluford accepted this role reluctantly, protesting that he was simply another member of the space shuttle team.
Involvement in space continues
In 1986 the Challenger (see entry) exploded shortly after takeoff. Aboard the shuttle was Ronald E. McNair (1950–1986), the second black American in space. Only months earlier Bluford had completed a Challenger mission, yet the disaster did little to dampen his enthusiasm for space travel. In 1991 he participated in a Discovery flight that was launched to observe Earth's atmosphere and such phenomena as the Northern Lights (aurora borealis; streamers or arcs of light that occur in polar regions) and cirrus (wispy white) clouds.
Before retiring from NASA and the air force in 1993, Bluford clocked about 314 hours in space. Once asked by a Philadelphia Inquirer interviewer to describe how it feels to rocket into space, Bluford replied: "Imagine driving down the street, and you look out the window, and all you see are flames. And your car is being driven by remote control, and you're saying to yourself, 'I hope this thing doesn't blow up.'" In 2003 he reflected on his career in a NASA Web site article. Commenting on his role as one of the first African Americans in space, he said, "I wanted to set the standard, 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."
Bluford has retained his ties to the space program. In 1993 he became vice president and general manager of the engineering and computer software company NYMA, Inc., based in Cleveland, Ohio. Later renamed Logicon Federal Data Corporation (FDC), it was purchased by Northrop Grumman in 1997. Bluford was responsible for overseeing FDC's programs related to aerospace engineering and research. He has also served on the board of directors of such organizations as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Board of the Space Foundation. In 2001 Bluford became a speaker with The Space Agency, a public relations firm that represents former astronauts and space pioneers. The following year he was featured in a cameo role in the music video by Will Smith (1968–) for "Black Suits Comin', Nod Ya Head," from the Men in Black II movie soundtrack.
Bluford has received numerous awards and honors, including two Defense Meritorious Service Medals, four NASA Space Flight Medals, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and the Air Force Legion of Merit. He was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1997. On that occasion Bluford observed, "Flying in space is well worth the risks in order to help all of us improve our way of life."
For More Information
Beck, Isabel, et al. Guion Bluford: A Space Biography. New York: Harcourt, 2003.
Haskins, James S. Space Challenger: The Story of Guion Bluford: An Authorized Biography. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1988.
"Profiles in African American History: Guion Bluford Jr." Time for Kids (February 14, 2003): p. 2.
"Col. Guion S. Bluford Jr." Military.com.http://www.military.com/Content/MoreContent?file=ML_bluford_bkp (accessed on June 29, 2004).
"Guion 'Guy' Bluford—NASA Astronaut." About Space/Astronomy.http://space.about.com/cs/formerastronauts/a/guionbluford.htm (accessed on June 29, 2004).
"Guy Bluford Remembered Twenty Years Later." NASA.http://www.nasa.gov/news/highlights/Bluford_feature.html (accessed on June 29, 2004).