First African-American astronaut refused to let 'misstep' keep him from dream|
2/10/2012 - FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) -- When a person is trying to reach for the stars, any misstep could keep them just out of reach.
Retired Air Force Col. Guion Bluford, however, didn't let a less-than-stellar start in college stop him from becoming one of the most prominent figures in aerospace engineering as well as the first African American in space.
Born in Nov. 22, 1942, Bluford grew up in middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia. His father was a mechanical engineer and his mother was a teacher. Being that both his parents and grandparents were college graduates, he didn't see not going to college as an option.
Luckily, he had already decided what he wanted to do with his life by the time he was in middle school: aerospace engineering.
Though he graduated from Penn State in 1964 with a bachelor's in aerospace engineering, he had a rough time his freshman year trying to get acclimated to the university environment. Unfortunately, Bluford failed freshman English, bringing his GPA to below 2.0. Instead of giving up, however, he used that experience to push himself to succeed.
"My best year at Penn State was my senior year because it took me four years to figure out how to study," Bluford said in an interview at Penn State. "It was a challenging experience, and I thought in the end it gave me a lot of grit. That helped me throughout my career."
ROTC was mandatory at Penn State while he was attending, which was the catalyst for his joining the Air Force after college. Bluford received a commission and attended pilot training at Williams Air Force Base, Ariz., receiving his pilot wings in 1966. He received further training in Arizona and Florida on the F-4C. Eventually, he was sent to Vietnam and flew 144 combat missions during his tour there.
After he left Vietnam in 1967, he served in a variety of positions at Sheppard AFB, Texas,
including as a T-38A instructor pilot; standardization/evaluation officer; and executive support officer. After attending the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, from 1972 to 1974, Bluford was assigned to the Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory.
In 1978, he applied for and was accepted to the NASA astronaut program, becoming an astronaut in August 1979.
"NASA hadn't hired astronauts since '66," Bluford said in his Penn State interview. "So they were looking for astronauts to fly this thing called the space shuttle."
Out of his class of 35 people, there were six women and two other African American men, U.S. Air Force Col. Frederick Gregory and physicist Ron McNair. The classmates were all cognizant of the fact that one person would be first woman in space and one would be the first African American in space. As fate would have it, Bluford took the latter honor.
"My goal was really to just make a contribution," Bluford said in the Penn State interview. "I really didn't anticipate being the first African American in space. I didn't push for that, but I was pleasantly surprised by it."
That first flight was on mission STS-8, which launched from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., Aug. 30, 1983, aboard the Orbiter Challenger. Bluford made three other flights after that, in 1985, 1991 and 1992. In those missions he did everything from laboratory experiments to satellite deployments to a classified military mission.
With all of that time spent in space, the awe began to wear off.
"I would kid the rookies and I would say, 'Hey, don't get too excited; this is just a business trip,'" Bluford said in the Penn State interview. "'We're only going to be out of town eight days.' ... I recognized from my point of view that I had seen it all. So the awe was still there, but it wasn't as strong as it was on the first flight."
And no wonder: By the time his final flight touched down at Edwards AFB, Calif., Dec. 9, 1992, he had logged more than 688 hours in space.
Bluford left NASA and retired from the Air Force in July 1993, but he has continued to lead the field of aerospace engineering, taking on leadership roles in a number of research and consulting organizations. He realizes, however, that his experiences have also thrust him into the position of a role model for minorities looking to get into a science and engineering career. In his Penn State interview, Bluford said that even though he grew up with an engineer father and teacher mother, his road to success was not easy. It took persistence and focus ... and having a clear goal in mind.
"I was very fortunate in the sense that I knew who I was," he said. "And I kid people all the time about the fact that they pay me to have a good time. I've been having a good time for the last thirty to forty years doing things that I enjoy."
In other words, he reached for the stars ... and caught them.