5 facts about the first black US astronaut in space

Matt Saintsing
August 30, 2018 - 12:11 pm

Photo Courtesy of NASA

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Just 561 people have had the opportunity to leave our planet blasting off towards the heavens. When discussing American space travelers, that number shrinks to 332. But of those, only 14 are black.

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the first African-American astronaut in space, U.S. Air Force Col. Guion Bluford, Jr. Decades before the Space Force was first uttered, Bluford propelled manned space flight into a new era as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger on Aug. 30, 1983. 

Here are five facts about Bluford: 

1. He was an experienced combat Air Force Pilot before joining NASA  

A Philadelphia native, Bluford graduated from Penn State University in 1964 as a distinguished Air Force ROTC graduate. He went on to serve in the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, flying 144 combat missions, 65 of which in the skies above North Vietnam. 

The 75 year old has logged more than 5,200 hours in jet flight time in the T-33, T-37, T-38, F-4C, F-15, U2/TR-1 and F-5A/B aircraft. 

2. He was on the Challenger’s first ever night launch. 

As a mission specialist aboard STS-8, Bluford made history when it took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the evening of Aug. 30, 1983. Over the span of 98 earth orbits, which took about 145 hours, Bluford operated a Canadian-built robot arm and conducted several biophysical experiments. 

His historic mission ended September 5, when the shuttle landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California in a night landing, another first for the shuttle. 

3. He’s a doctor. No, not that kind. 

Following his service in Vietnam, Bluford attended the Air Force Institute of Technology, where he received a master’s degree and Ph.D. in aerospace engineering in 1978, and the same year he was selected for NASA. 

4. He has hundreds of hours in space. 

He officially became an astronaut in August 1979, and by the time he retired, logged 688 cumulative space hours or just over 28 days. You know how long February is (most years)? Tack another 12-hours on it. 

5. He’s in the International Space Hall of Fame

Bluford retired from the Air Force in 1993, serving a total of 29 years. Four years later, he was given space travel’s highest honor. 

Becoming an astronaut is no easy feat, and he faced a huge field of some 9,000 NASA hopefuls, surviving the cut when just 35 rose above to earn their astronaut wings, along with two other black men and about a dozen women, including Sally Ride. 

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