Uncommon Ability, Uncommon Goal: NASA’s First Black Astronauts


To date, NASA's last African-American space voyager was Al Drew, seen here during an EVA on the STS-133 mission in early 2011. However, the work and achievements of many black astronauts have served to galvanise a new generation. Photo Credit: NASA.

Thirty years ago, in April 1982, NASA announced the names of three historic Shuttle crews. One of them included the first European astronaut to fly aboard the reusable orbiter, another carried the United States’ first woman in space and the third featured the first African-American spacefarer, Guy Bluford. In the first decade of Shuttle operations, Bluford and three other black astronauts – Ron McNair, Fred Gregory and Charlie Bolden – would carve out their own niches in the annals of space history. Each had trodden a rocky road, laden with tough challenges and the ingrained racial prejudice of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet all four were driven by inspirational parents and a relentless work ethic to achieve what they did. McNair, sadly, perished as he reached for the stars, whilst Gregory became the first black commander of a space mission and Bolden, of course, is today the first black Administrator of NASA. Their individual stories are as dramatic as the missions they flew and the effect that these four trailblazers had on the black astronauts who followed has been profound.

When Bluford’s name was revealed by NASA as a member of the STS-8, there was initially some cynicism in the press that the agency was using two of its trump cards, a woman and an African-American, on the first two Shuttle missions to feature members of its first racially, culturally and sexually diverse class of astronauts. Flight International strongly hinted that NASA’s decision may have been politically motivated.

Having said this, Lieutenant-Colonel Guion Stewart Bluford Jr of the Air Force had accrued an impressive educational record – one of only two military astronauts in his class to hold a PhD – and had pursued an equally impressive Air Force career. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 22 November 1942, the son of a mechanical engineer father and a special education teacher mother, Bluford attended Overbrook High School and Pennsylvania State University, where he studied aerospace engineering on an Air Force officers’ training programme. Graduation in September 1964 was followed by a commission as a second lieutenant, flight training at Williams Air Force Base in Phoenix, Arizona, and the award of his pilot’s wings in February 1966.

With many fellow Air Force pilots going to Vietnam, Bluford was no exception; after completing survival school and several months of radar and intercept training, he ultimately flew 144 combat missions – half of which were directly over the communist North – in F-4C Phantom jets. “These missions included combat air patrol, close air-to-ground support and air superiority flights,” he told the NASA oral historian, “throughout North and South Vietnam, as well as Laos.” By the summer of 1967, back in the United States, he had been designated as a T-38A Talon instructor pilot at Sheppard Air Force Base, near Wichita Falls in Texas, and later served as a standardisation and evaluation officer and an assistant flight commander. Bluford attended Squadron Officers School in 1971 and returned as an executive support office to the deputy commander of operations.

Whilst working at Sheppard, he began to explore opportunities for becoming an aerospace engineer. His parent service was not particularly enamoured by the idea – “the Air Force was critically short of pilots at that time,” Bluford explained, “and thus needed my skills as an instructor pilot, versus as an engineer” – but was prepared to support him on a master’s degree course. He completed the course in aerospace engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1974 and, whilst studying, one of Bluford’ professors advised him to continue towards a doctorate. “I applied and got accepted…whilst still completing my master’s degree requirements,” he explained. “I dovetailed some of the PhD coursework among my master’s degree courses, so that I could complete the coursework for both programmes in two and a quarter years!”

Guy Bluford served as the flight engineer during STS-8 and is pictured during a training session in May 1983. Photo Credit: NASA.

In March 1974, after completing his PhD coursework, Bluford was assigned to the Flight Dynamics Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, as a staff development engineer and, later, as deputy for advanced concepts in the Aeromechanics Division and as branch chief of the Aerodynamics and Airframe Branch. Whilst there, he completed his doctoral thesis. “It was a great opportunity,” he said, “for me to use both my technical skills and my flying experience in developing advanced technologies for future aircraft. I led an organisation of 45-50 engineers, who were doing basic aerodynamic research, in such areas as forward swept wings, supercritical airfoils, advanced analytical aircraft techniques, inlets, axisymmetric nozzles and computational fluid dynamics.”

By 1977, the Air Force was pressuring Bluford to return to active flying, as an instructor pilot for the T-37 Tweet training aircraft, and during this period a notice from NASA, calling for Shuttle astronaut candidates, caught his attention. In Bluford’s mind, it was the perfect opportunity to fulfil his flying requirements for the military, whilst also putting his technical skills to good use and expanding his knowledge. “I could do it all as a NASA astronaut,” he exclaimed. “What a deal!” With more than the minimum mandated 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command jet time, Bluford was able to apply for both the pilot and mission specialist categories – although he was not a test pilot – and was ultimately summoned to Houston for physiological and psychological evaluations and interviews in early November.

Bluford heard the news of the astronaut selection one day in January 1978 and assumed that he had been unsuccessful…only to arrive at work one Monday morning and receive a call from George Abbey, the head of Flight Crew Operations, informing him that he had been successful. “I later discovered that NASA had called all 200 finalists that morning,” Bluford recalled, “and told them of their decision.” Triumph, however, was tinged with sadness, for that very same month of January brought the news that his mother was gravely ill, with barely six months to live…

Interestingly, several of the new candidates – Bluford included – were feverishly working to complete their doctoral dissertations at the time of selection. “I had given myself until the end of the year to complete the document,” he told the oral historian. “NASA wanted me in Houston in July and thus I had to expedite the writing! I defended my research and completed my dissertation in June 1978, just before I left for my new assignment as a NASA astronaut.” In fact, the Blufords – Guy, his wife and their two children – were in the process of moving house from Dayton to Philadelphia, early that month, and he stayed behind to finish the dissertation. “I eventually completed the document,” Bluford concluded, “made six or seven copies of it, dropped it off on my dissertation advisor’s desk one Sunday evening and left for Philadelphia to pick up the family.” Years later, he would consider getting his PhD from the Air Force Institute of Technology as his crowning achievement.

Bluford’s first four years with NASA included work in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory and Rockwell International’s Flight Systems Laboratory and requalification as a T-38 pilot; by the end of his career, he would have accumulated more than four and a half thousand hours of flying time in the jet trainer. When he received notification of his first crew assignment as a mission specialist on STS-8, Bluford felt comfortable serving as the flight engineer, seated behind and between the commander and pilot, since his experience in the Shuttle simulators and with the flight data files was extensive. This expertise would guide him through a further three missions after STS-8: a dedicated West German Spacelab flight and two Department of Defense assignments.

Ron McNair (top right), pictured with his crewmates during Mission 41B. Photo Credit: NASA.

Six months after Bluford’s first flight, in February 1984, the turn came of Ronald Ervin McNair, who had established a reputation for himself as a world-class physicist, a fifth-degree karate black belt instructor and an accomplished saxophonist. During his early years as an astronaut, he played in an 18-piece swing band at the Johnson Space Center. In fact, McNair took his saxophone with him on his first flight, Mission 41B, and, two years later, planned to play it again on his second mission for a very special purpose. In the autumn of 1985, he began working with musician Jean-Michel Jarre on a piece of music for the album ‘Rendez-Vous’; the plan was for McNair to record a saxophone solo and, at one point, even for him to participate in one of Jarre’s concerts, via live feed. Sadly, McNair’s second mission, in January 1986, ended in tragedy when Challenger exploded, shortly after liftoff, but Jarre would honour his fallen friend: the final piece on the ‘Rendez-Vous’ album came to be known informally as ‘Ron’s Piece’.

McNair came from Lake City in South Carolina, where he was born on 21 October 1950, and developed a passion for learning – particularly science – from his mother and father. “My parents were not pushers,” he once said. “They never told us to do anything, but somehow they created an atmosphere, an environment, where it was the thing to do.” Growing up in an America where blacks were still persecuted, McNair found himself in a tricky situation as a young child. One day in 1959, he visited a library, a mile from his home, to borrow some science books. His elder brother, Carl, later recalled the story, as the librarian refused to serve him – “This library is not for coloureds,” she said – and the indignant young boy elected to wait whilst she called the police. When two white officers arrived, along with McNair’s mother, Pearl, they could see no apparent disturbance, only a nine-year-old boy sat on the library counter.

“Ma’am, what’s the problem?” one of the cops asked.

“He wanted to check out the books,” the librarian replied, and turning to Pearl, continued: “You know your son shouldn’t be down here.”

After a moment’s silence, common sense prevailed and the officer asked: “Why don’t you just give the kid the books?” Pearl assured the librarian that young Ron would take care of them…and insisted that her son thanked the woman on his way out. To Carl McNair, it was a clear indicator of his brother’s indomitable spirit and an uncommon ability to see opportunities where others saw only closed doors.

McNair’s desire for learning continued and he left Carter High School in 1967 as that year’s valedictorian – the highest-ranking student and the one chosen to deliver the farewell speech for his class – before moving on to North Carolina A&T State University to pursue a physics degree. Four years later, he graduated magna cum laude (with high honours) and immediately plunged into doctoral research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, under the supervision of Professor Michael Feld, famed in the fields of quantum optics and the medical applications of lasers. During his five years with MIT, McNair performed some of the world’s earliest development work on hydrogen and deuterium fluoride chemical lasers and high-pressure carbon dioxide lasers. This research contributed to a new understanding and potential applications for highly-excited polyatomic molecules.

Completion of his PhD in 1976 was followed by appointment as a staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California, during which time McNair worked on the development of lasers for isotope separation and photochemistry using non-linear interactions in low-temperature liquids and optical pumping techniques. A year later, in November 1977, McNair was one of the last candidates to be invited to Houston to be interviewed by NASA. His selection as a member of the first group of Shuttle astronauts in January 1978 made him one of only three African-Americans to make the final cut. To many, his achievements may have seemed inconceivable a decade earlier, but to Carl McNair, his brother’s own efforts and endless determination had paid off. “Ron…didn’t accept societal norms as being his norm,” he told a National Public Radio interviewer in January 2011. “That was for other people. And he got to be aboard his own Starship Enterprise!”

On STS-33 in November 1989, Fred Gregory made history as the first black astronaut ever to command a space mission. Photo Credit: NASA.

If McNair’s aspiration was to reach for the stars, then for Frederick Drew Gregory, an Air Force officer who later served as NASA’s first black Deputy Administrator, it was the lure of the skies. In November 1989, he became the first African-American astronaut to command a mission. Gregory came from Washington, DC, where he was born on 7 January 1941. His father was an engineer and took every opportunity to expose his son to new experiences, frequently visiting Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. “In the late ’40s or early ’50s, they had sports car racing at Andrews,” Gregory told the NASA oral historian. “They would use the taxiway and the runways for these car races. He would always position himself and me across from a hangar and there would always be airplanes…and though the object was to watch the sports car racing, you couldn’t avoid seeing the airplanes in the background.”

Such sights were undoubtedly influential in the young boy’s maturing mind, as were several of his father’s friends, who had been members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black aviation unit in the Second World War. By the time he was in his mid-teens, Gregory was aware of the link between aviation and the military and decided that it would form the basis of his future career. When he met Barbara Archer (later to become his wife of more than four decades), Gregory took her on a first date…to Andrews Air Force Base to watch an air show! “She was either very patient,” he said with a laugh, “or in fact had those same kinds of motivations.”

Gregory entered the Air Force Academy to study for his science degree, becoming one of only a handful of African-Americans ever to be admitted to the prestigious institution. (Three others, Charles Bush, Isaac Payne and Roger Sims, were admitted shortly prior to this.) “These were high-quality people,” he reflected. “These were not tokens. They weren’t brought in just to change the colour of the Academy; they were brought in because they were absolutely equal to the other members of the class.” Gregory noted that, with segregation of black and white still widespread across the United States, the military actually seemed more open to full racial integration than many other sectors of society, having taken serious steps towards this end as early as 1947, the year the Air Force became an independent service. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1964 and began training as a helicopter pilot at Stead Air Force Base in Nevada, receiving his wings the following year.

In June 1966, he undertook his “very fulfilling” first deployment to North Vietnam, as an H-43 combat rescue pilot, and upon returning to the United States he flew the UH-1F helicopter as a missile support pilot at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. Then, in January 1968, his aviation experience changed direction, when the opportunity presented itself to transfer to fixed-wing aircraft, firstly on the T-38 Talon and later the F-4 Phantom II. In the meantime, he had also been accepted into Naval Test Pilot School and after graduation in June 1971 he was despatched to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where he tested both fighters and helicopters. His next assignment, in June 1974, was a detail to NASA’s Langley Research Center as a research pilot. NASA specifically wanted a test pilot with experience in rotary aircraft and fighters and, years later, Gregory would admit that had he not chosen helicopter training earlier in his career, “I probably would not be where I am right now, because I would have been just like any other test pilot with a single capability”.

By 1977, his interest in remaining a research pilot was waning and it Nichelle Nichols, the African-American actress from ‘Star Trek’, who inspired Gregory to apply. She had spearheaded a campaign to hire NASA’s first black astronauts. His worry was his relative paucity of fighter experience and, briefly, he considered resigning from the Air Force and entering the astronaut corps as a civilian. By this time, he had earned a master’s degree in information systems from George Washington University, and in November he was invited to Houston for interview. Between 1985 and 1991, he flew three Shuttle missions.

As an astronaut, Gregory’s experience as a former helicopter made rides with him aboard the T-38 a thrilling experience. “Apparently,” wrote Mike Mullane, “helicopter pilots believed they would get a nosebleed if they ever flew above a few feet altitude, or at least I got that impression from flying with Fred…We would pass over the tops of windmills with just yards of clearance. The only thing that protected us from running into buzzards and hawks was that they had sense enough to cruise at higher altitudes.” When a power line loomed, Gregory would hop the jet over it. On one occasion, they swooped down into the yawning Rio Grande River Gorge in New Mexico and found themselves looking up to see the canyon’s rim! “In what is truly a remarkable irony,” Mullane concluded, “many years later, Fred was appointed NASA’s Associate Administrator for Safety. I guess we all eventually grow brains!”

Charlie Bolden began his reach for the stars as a child and flew four Shuttle missions, including command of STS-60. Today, his mission is to guide America's next steps into the Solar System. It will be his most challenging mission to date. Photo Credit: NASA.

Whilst Gregory’s brains and achievements allowed him to ascend the chain of command within NASA to the Deputy Administrator’s office in 2002, it was Charles Frank Bolden Jr who was selected by President Barack Obama as the agency’s first African-American Administrator. Bolden was born in Columbia, South Carolina, on 19 August 1946. “I never wanted to be an aviator,” he told the oral historian. “I saw a programme on television, called Men of Annapolis, when I was in eighth grade; fell in love with the uniform, fell in love with the fact that they seemed to get all the good-looking girls!”

After high school, where his father served as the head football coach, Bolden entered the Naval Academy and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in 1968. His original intent was to become a Navy frogman or an underwater demolition expert, but after graduation he entered the Marine Corps, inspired by an infantryman, Major John Riley Love, who had been his first company officer at the academy. “I knew that infantry officers died real quick when they went to Vietnam,” Bolden said. The devastating Tet Offensive had recently occurred and life expectancies for infantrymen were expressed in months, rather than years, but he pressed on through Basic School, then decided to change course and enter Marine aviation instead. He underwent flight instruction, received his wings in May 1970 and later flew 100 sorties (many of them in darkness) over Vietnam in the A-6 Intruder.

The lure of test pilot school was strong, although Bolden met with many rejections. Upon his return to the United States from Vietnam, he served as a selection and recruitment officer in Los Angeles and took various assignments at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, California. After half a dozen attempts, he was finally accepted by the test pilot school at Patuxent River in Maryland and graduated in June 1979. Years later, he was convinced that a master’s in systems management, earned from the University of Southern California in 1977, was instrumental in this success. At around this time, Bolden picked up a NASA application form, but did not fill it in, preferring not to waste his own time and that of the Marine Corps. However, when he met some of the group who had been selected, Bolden decided to try his hand and was interviewed in Houston.

At the end of May in 1980 – on his wife’s birthday, of all times – he received the call from George Abbey that would change his life. Assigned as Robert ‘Hoot’ Gibson’s pilot for his first mission, Bolden would credit his commander with having taught him a great deal about Shuttle systems and aerodynamics…and, most significantly, Hoot’s Law. By his own admission, Bolden struggled through his first few months of mission-specific training. “I really wanted to impress everybody on the crew and the training team,” he told the NASA oral historian. One day, in the simulator, the instructors threw an engine failure at the crew and, to distract them, quickly piled on more problems. Bolden followed his procedures, safing the engine, and was quickly presented with a minor glitch in an electrical bus. His attention shifted to the new problem, but he picked the wrong bus and inadvertently shut down the bus for an operating engine.

“When I did that,” he said, “the engine lost power and it got real quiet! We went from having one engine down in the orbiter, which we could’ve gotten out of, to having two engines down, and we were in the water, dead.” Bolden felt awful. If this ascent simulation had been for real, he would have brought death to them all. Gibson, in his infinite wisdom, reached across the cockpit and patted Bolden on the shoulder.

“Charlie,” he said, “let me tell you about Hoot’s Law.”

“What’s Hoot’s Law?”

“No matter how bad things get, you can always make them worse!”

The two men flew together on Mission 61C in January 1986 and it was the start of an impressive four-flight Shuttle career for Bolden. At the time of the Challenger disaster, he had already been assigned to the Hubble Space Telescope deployment flight, which eventually took place in April 1990, and privately hoped to command its first repair mission. That hope did not come to pass, but Bolden commanded two pivotal flights in the early 1990s: the first dedicated Earth observation mission and the first Shuttle mission to carry a Russian cosmonaut. Today, Bolden is burdened with his heaviest mission yet: the responsibility for charting NASA’s progress from the post-Shuttle era into a new era which may see a return to the Moon and an eventual voyage to Mars.

The hopes and dreams of many African-Americans have ridden on the shoulders of these four men who became America’s first black astronauts. Their actions, their hard work and their deeds have inspired other pathfinders who followed in their footsteps, including Mae Jemison, the first female African-American astronaut, and Bernard Harris, the first black spacewalker. Yet to cement their credentials and to demonstrate that they are far from political tokens, it is important for African-American astronauts to go further than simply securing the ‘firsts’; their achievements must also be commonplace and no longer historic. The men and women who have followed – Winston Scott, Bob Curbeam, Mike Anderson, Stephanie Wilson, Joan Higginbotham, Leland Melvin, Al Drew and Bobby Satcher – have amply demonstrated this. They have gone past the mild records and have shown that African-Americans have an exciting place in the exploration of space.

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      Ben Evans

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