Guy Bluford was interviewed and photographed for Lift Every Voice, in partnership with Lexus. Lift Every Voice records the wisdom and life experiences of the oldest generation of Black Americans by connecting them with a new generation of Black journalists. The oral history series is running across Hearst magazines, newspapers, and television websites around Juneteenth 2021. Go to oprahdaily.com/lifteveryvoice for more information.
On August 30, 1983, Guy Bluford was a crew member aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger when it launched from Kennedy Space Station on its third mission, making Bluford the first Black astronaut to fly to space. Here he reflects on the importance of that achievement and the role he filled—and offers advice to young people seeking their way in the world.
What would you tell someone who wants to pursue a career as an astronaut, or in aerospace engineering?
I tell kids to chase their passions. I did not know as a kid that I would want to be an astronaut. I didn’t even think about flying. But I did find that I was passionate about airplanes. I wanted to learn as much as I could about them. And my whole career has been geared toward learning as much as possible about airplanes and spacecraft.
The possibility of being an astronaut is very small. We just selected astronauts maybe a couple years ago; 18,000 people applied and only 12 got selected. So you want to make sure that you’re doing a job that you really enjoy, even if you don’t become an astronaut.
You enlisted in the United States Air Force after college. What inspired you to do that?
Male students going to Penn State had to take two years of R.O.T.C. So I took Air Force R.O.T.C. After two years, I elected to continue, and go advanced R.O.T.C. [The advanced program teaches military tactics and leadership, and comes with a commitment to serve as a military officer after you graduate.] It gave me an opportunity to satisfy my draft requirements as well as an opportunity to serve my country. I thought that I would spend four or five years in the Air Force and then get out and become an aerospace engineer.
But between my junior and senior year at Penn State, I went to R.O.T.C. summer camp and found out that I could fly airplanes. And so I decided to go into the Air Force as a pilot, with the thought that I would learn how to be a better aerospace engineer if I flew airplanes. In my senior year, I learned to fly a Cessna 150. And in ’64, I graduated from Penn State with a degree in aerospace engineering, a commission in the Air Force, and a private pilot’s license.
What was it like to be selected for NASA?
I was very fortunate. We had 8,000 people who applied, and 35 of us were selected. I was surprised that I got selected. I’ve spoken with people at NASA and I asked them, Why did they select me? And they basically said I was tough.
In ’77 NASA started going through their 8,000 people and they would send out letters to those eliminated. For most of ’77 I sat around waiting for my letter. In the middle of that year, NASA started selecting finalists in groups of 20. So every week you’d see 20 to 40 names of people that NASA had selected to bring to Houston. In October or November, I was in Washington, D.C., on a business trip, and I came back to my hotel room and found a note on the door that said, “Contact NASA.” So I called, and the guy said, “You’ve been selected as a finalist; we’d like to have you in Houston.” I spent a week in Houston. I saw the 19 other people in my group of 20, and they were strong people. We all went through a physical—I’ve never had a physical that thorough—and a psychiatric exam. And I got an opportunity to meet astronauts, which was exciting. But you didn’t know if you were going to make it or not.
In January, I was driving to work [in Ohio], and I heard on the radio that NASA had selected 35 astronauts. So I assumed that I hadn’t gotten my rejection letter yet. But I got to work, and about 10 o’clock, I got a call from NASA. And this guy at the other end asked me what the weather was like in Dayton. And I’ll tell you, the weather was miserable. So I complained about that. And he calmly said, “You know, it doesn’t snow in Houston; would you like to come to Houston?” And so that was the call that told me that I had been selected for the astronaut program.
Did you ever experience racism or racial profiling in your career?
I’m pretty sure all African Americans see that. I didn’t let it bother me. I grew up in a world where I felt I could do anything I wanted to do through hard work. And I was able to do that over the years.
What were some of the challenges you faced being the first African American man in space?
When I came into the program, there were six women in our class. And you had me and Ron McNair and Fred Gregory, three African Americans. And one Asian American, Ellis Onizuka. So we recognized that we were breaking the mold, with reference to astronauts who are primarily male and white. We knew that one of us would eventually get selected first woman, first African American. Ellis Onizuka didn’t have any competition for first Asian American. I didn’t anticipate being selected.
I was happy to learn that in ’82, I would fly as part of STS-8. And it just so happened to be a historic mission, in reference to being the first African American to fly in space. I feel honored to be in that role.
Once I got down, I wanted to fly a second time, which I did, in ’85. And then we had the Challenger accident [in 1986] and we lost Ron McNair and company. I wanted to stay around, and I flew a third and fourth.
One of the things that I really wanted to do was not only to break the mold, but to help pull other African Americans into the program and get them to fly. I feel honored with reference to not only leading the charge, but helping a bunch of other African Americans who came behind me. I take a great deal of pride in that.
How did you do that?
One of the things that I tried to do was just do the best I could. Whatever advice I could provide to those who came behind me, I would try it. But encouragement, opening the way for other African Americans, I thought was my responsibility.
With African American organizations, we help those that come behind. Victor Glover just got down from flying in space. He will go and try to help Jeanette Epps. Jeanette Epps will help Jessica Watkins, and so forth and so on. Once you get down, try and help the team behind you.
Is there any advice you have for Black scientists and students in particular?
Aim high and work hard at it. And I really tell them that if I can do it, they can do it. If you can dream it, you can achieve it, but it requires hard work and perseverance.
How would you sum up your life?
I’ve been a fighter pilot with over 5,200 hours of jet time and a commercial pilot license. I’ve been an astronaut, I’ve flown four times in space. I’ve got four earned degrees and 14 honorary doctorate degrees. I’ve been inducted into three halls of fame. I’ve been a researcher on both the aero side and the space side. I’ve been a senior aerospace engineering executive with three different companies. And I’m an explorer—I’ve scuba-dived all over the world. But I am basically a kid who grew up in West Philadelphia, got interested in airplanes, and has had an exciting career as an aerospace engineer. I’m an aerospace engineer who has found something that he enjoys doing.
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De'Aundre Barnes is a 2020 graduate of North Carolina Central University.