To infinity ... and beyond

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," said 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."

Guy Bluford presents Bryce Jordan with football jersey, 1983

This photograph was taken in 1983 just 7 weeks after astronaut Guion S. Bluford Jr. became the first African-American to fly in space. Bluford presents a Penn State football jersey, flown aboard the space shuttlecraft Challenger, to University President Bryce Jordan during halftime ceremonies of the Penn Slate-West Virginia game at Beaver Stadium. A distinguished alumnus of the University, Bluford also served as co-grand marshal of the annual Homecoming parade.

Image: Penn State

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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Last Updated February 16, 2017