As a fighter pilot in Vietnam, Guion Stewart Bluford, Jr. (born 1942) flew 144 combat missions and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. On August 30, 1983, with the lift-off of the STS-8 Orbiter Challenger, he became the first African American in space.
Distinguished pilot and aeronautics engineer Guy Bluford was the first black American to experience space flight. Bluford has flown three missions on the Space Shuttle, performing various experiments and returning to earth with exhilarating memories of his time in orbit. Although others have hailed the Philadelphia native as a hero and a role model for the black race, Bluford—who has earned a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering—prefers to think of himself as a man whose accomplishments are not related to his skin color. He says that he would rather be seen simply as an astronaut, not a black astronaut, one of a hard-working corps and not a pioneer. "I felt an awesome responsibility, and I took the responsibility very seriously, of being a role model and opening another door to black Americans," he said of his Shuttle flights in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "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."
Washington Post correspondent Bill Prochnau called Bluford's life "a study in contradictions: the story of a shy and reticent youth who will be known to history as a black pioneer, a youngster whose mother once thought him the least likely of her three sons to make a success of himself, a struggling student who persevered to earn a master's degree and a doctorate, a loner who says he has no best friends and no heroes but who is … seen as a hero himself, a self-described 'average guy' who became far more than average by pressing on when things got tough and by setting each new goal only after the last had been achieved."
Early Years in Philadelphia
Bluford, known in his youth by the nickname "Bunny," grew up in a middle-class, racially mixed neighborhood in Philadelphia. Both of his parents hailed from families of distinction. His mother, Lolita, was related to Carol Brice Carey, a well-known contralto and voice coach, and his father, Guion, Sr., was the brother of the editor of the Kansas City Call. Bluford's parents also had advanced educations. His father was a mechanical engineer until epilepsy forced him to retire early, and his mother worked as a special education teacher in the city's public schools.
Bluford was a quiet, private child who reportedly had few friends. He liked to spend his spare time building model airplanes and working crossword puzzles. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he was fascinated with his father's attitude toward work. "He would charge out of the house every morning, eager to get to work," Bluford said. "I thought if engineers enjoy work that much, it must be a good thing to get into."
Bluford was deeply moved and inspired by his father's courageous struggle with ill health. Determined to become an aeronautics engineer, the young man devoted himself to his studies. On one occasion, a guidance counselor at Overbrook, the mostly white high school he attended, suggested that Bluford might not be college material. Nevertheless, he was able to maintain a C-plus average in the school's most difficult math and science courses. Bluford's brother Kenneth told the Washington Post: "Bunny just had to work harder than the rest of us. He put in very long hours. He was always a little behind and trying to catch up. He was not like a kid who was unusually bright, with his mind darting all over the place, making discoveries here and there. In school, Bunny was always slugging it out."
Bluford's parents paid no attention to the suggestion that their son would not succeed in college. In 1960 they sent him to Pennsylvania State University, where he was the only black student in the engineering school. He attended college on the Reserve Officers' Training Corps plan and once again earned adequate, if not exceptional grades. Barnes McCormick, a professor of aerospace engineering at Penn State, told the Washington Post that Bluford was "a quiet fellow and an average student, not the sort you would expect to be interviewed about 20 years later."
Fighter Pilot in Vietnam
During his senior year at Penn State, Bluford married another Philadelphian, Linda Tull. After graduating in 1964, he joined the U.S. Air Force and took flight training. He was assigned to the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Cam Ram Bay in Vietnam, where he flew 144 combat missions, 65 of them over North Vietnam. His family at home was split philosophically about the war, but Bluford saw his activities in Vietnam as a patriotic duty that he needed to perform to the best of his ability. He earned numerous medals and citations for his flying, including an Air Force Commendation medal. He returned home a lieutenant colonel and began to work as a test pilot for new air force equipment.
Referring to Bluford's transformation from average student to extraordinary military officer and engineer, Philadelphia Inquirer contributor Fawn Vrazo observed: "Between 1964, the year he graduated from Penn State, and 1978, the year he received a doctoral degree in engineering … something remarkable happened to Guy Bluford. School and military records suggest that he put himself through an incredible honing process—tightening up his determination and work habits until he became a perfectly disciplined and motivated specimen of an Air Force career pilot and engineer." Bluford was one of a handful of candidates chosen to attend the Air Force Institute of Technology near Dayton, Ohio. There he received his master's and doctoral degrees in aerospace engineering, with a minor in laser physics. He ranked consistently among the top ten percent of his class. He also continued to work as a test pilot and an instructor for would-be military aviators.
In 1978 Bluford submitted his application to the Space Shuttle program. He knew he had little chance of acceptance—some eight thousand other military personnel had also applied for only 35 openings. When he received the call telling him of his selection, he quietly celebrated the news with his wife and two sons. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer that 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."
Flew Space Shuttle Missions
Bluford was not the first black man in space—a Cuban astronaut had flown with the Soviet Union's space program. Bluford was, however, the first black American to be a member of a space flight. After years of training, he was named to the Shuttle's eighth mission, which commenced on August 30, 1983. The week-long mission marked the first nighttime Shuttle launch and landing, and multiple experiments were performed during the flight. Upon returning to earth, Bluford discovered somewhat to his dismay that he was a national celebrity. He was greeted ceremoniously 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.
"It might be a bad thing [to be first], if you stop and think about it," Bluford told the Washington Post. "It might be better to be second or third because then you can enjoy it and disappear—return to the society you came out of without someone always poking you in the side and saying you were first." Tragically, the second black American in space, Ronald E. McNair, perished in the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
The Challenger disaster did little to dampen Bluford's enthusiasm for space travel, however. Of the two missions he has flown since 1983, one was a post-Challenger flight undertaken in 1991 to observe such phenomena as the Northern Lights, cirrus clouds, and the atmosphere. To date Bluford has clocked some 314 hours in space, and he is rarely at a loss for words when the subject turns to flying. Asked by the Philadelphia Inquirer to describe how it feels to rocket into space on the Shuttle, he said: "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."' Bluford added that the Shuttle travels about three hundred miles per minute.
"The Right Stuff" Knows No Color
According to Prochnau, Bluford's career proves "that 'the right stuff' comes in hues other than white." Indeed, despite his disclaimers, Bluford has helped to open doors for minority scientists and aviators who want to be part of the nation's space program. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he is gratified that blacks and women have become part of the once all-white, all-male astronaut corps. "It's an indication that black Americans are starting to become a part of the mainstream in American society, particularly the professions," he asserted. "I'm sort of bringing black Americans into the astronaut program, breaking new ground. But I also anticipate that blacks in space will become more routine. All of this media attention will eventually fade away."
What won't fade for Bluford is the perspective he has gained from traveling into space and orbiting the earth at 180,000 miles per hour. "I've come to appreciate the planet we live on," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "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." He told a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News that after traveling well over two million miles in space, his work remains "a labor of love," and added, "You want to stay up forever."
In July 1993 Bluford resigned from NASA to become vice president and general manager of the Engineering Services Division of NYMA, Inc. The company, located in Greenbelt, Maryland, provides engineering and software expertise to several branches of the federal government— including NASA.
Further Reading on Guion Stewart Bluford Jr
Daily News (Los Angeles), February 12, 1988
Jet, April 30, 1990, pp. 8-9; July 5, 1993, p. 32.
Philadelphia Inquirer, July 21, 1983; August 9, 1983; August 29, 1983; August 31, 1983; November 5, 1983; November 22, 1983; May 19, 1986.
Washington Post, August 21, 1983.