To infinity ... and beyond

Alumnus made history in 1983 as the first African-American to go to the stars

02/09/2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In 1983, Penn State alumnus Guion S. “Guy” Bluford became the first African-American astronaut to go to space, as a member of the crew aboard the third flight of the space shuttle Challenger.

The Philadelphia native came to Penn State to earn a college degree, but graduated in 1964 with much more.

“I tell people all the time, when I came to Penn State I wanted to get a degree in aerospace engineering,” said Bluford in an interview for the African-American Chronicles: Black History at Penn State. “When I left Penn State, I had a degree in aerospace engineering, I had a commission in the air force, I had gotten my private pilot's license up here as part of the ROTC program, and I married a woman (his wife, Linda) who I met as a freshman here at Penn State —  so, Penn State was a significant institution for me.”

In 1964 he graduated from the University and continued his path to the stars as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, flying 144 combat missions during the Vietnam War. He also earned master’s and doctoral degrees in aerospace engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology (and, later, an MBA from the University of Houston, Clear Lake).

Bluford was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1978, as part of NASA’s first new group of astronauts since 1969. This 35-member class (out of more than 8,000 applicants) was notable for many reasons, including having the first African-American and Asian-American astronauts, and the first women astronauts.

On Aug. 30, 1983, Bluford made history as the first African-American to experience space travel. He joined Challenger’s crew as a mission specialist and payload commander for the STS-8 mission and the space shuttle’s first night launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida; 98 Earth orbits later, the spacecraft touched down for its first night landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

"The crew taped the intercom conversation," says Bluford of Challenger's liftoff, in a 2013 NASA interview. "There's somebody giggling and laughing all the way up. And we listened to it for quite a while to try and figure out who that was, only to come to the conclusion that it was me. I mean, I laughed and giggled all the way up. It was such a fun ride."

Bluford crewed three more missions, once again in Challenger and two more in the space shuttle Discovery, for a total log of more than 688 hours in space.

In 1993, he left NASA and retired from the Air Force with the rank of colonel, to become vice president of the Engineering Services Division of NYMA Inc. in Greenbelt, Maryland. He went on to become vice president of the Aerospace Sector of Federal Data Corporation; then vice president of Microgravity R&D and Operations for the Northrop Grumman Corporation, and finally president of Aerospace Technology, an engineering consulting organization in Cleveland, Ohio.

Penn State named Bluford a Distinguished Alumnus in 1983. He was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1997, and the U.S. Astronauts Hall of Fame in 2010.

 

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Guion S. "Guy" Bluford

Guion S. "Guy" Bluford. Image: Courtesy of African-American Chronicles: Black History at Penn State

 
 

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The Penn State Department of Aerospace Engineering, established in 1961 and the only aerospace engineering department in Pennsylvania, is consistently recognized as one of the top aerospace engineering departments in the nation, and is also an international leader in aerospace education, research, and engagement. Our undergraduate program is ranked 15th and our graduate programs are ranked 15th nationally by U.S. News & World Report, while one in 25 holders of a B.S. degree in aerospace engineering in the U.S. earned it from Penn State. Our students are consistently among the most highly recruited by industry, government, and graduate schools nationwide.

The department is built upon the fundamentals of academic integrity, innovation in research, and commitment to the advancement of industry. Through an innovative curriculum and world-class instruction that reflects current industry practice and embraces future trends, Penn State Aerospace Engineering graduates emerge as broadly educated, technically sound aerospace engineers who will become future leaders in a critical industry

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