30 Years Ago: First African-American Launches into Space

Guy Bluford is shown on board the shuttle mission STS-8
Guy Bluford became the first African American in space on Aug. 30, 1983, aboard the Challenger on NASA's eight space shuttle mission (STS-8). (Image credit: NASA)

Thirty years ago Friday (Aug. 30), Guion "Guy" Bluford became the first African-American in space, launching into low-Earth orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. But he never set out to be a pioneer.

"My desire was to make a contribution to the program," Bluford said in a statement from NASA.

"People came from all over to watch this launch because I was flying," added Bluford. "I imagined them, all standing out there at one o'clock in the morning with their umbrellas, all asking the same question, 'Why am I standing here?'"

Bluford was part of NASA's barrier-breaking 1978 class of astronauts. Of the 35 spaceflyers selected, three were African-Americans, and six were women, including Sally Ride.

Bluford said that he and the other two black astronauts in the class (Fred Gregory and Ron McNair) were aware that one of them would become the first African-American spaceflyer.

"I probably told people that I would probably prefer not being in that role … because I figured being the No. 2 guy would probably be a lot more fun," Bluford recalled in a statement from NASA. But he has since embraced his place in space history.

"I wanted to set the standard, do the best job possible so that other people would be comfortable with African-Americans flying in space and African-Americans would be proud of being participants in the space program and… encourage others to do the same," Bluford said.

NASA chief Charles Bolden, who became the space agency's first black administrator in 2009, remembered Bluford's contributions in a video released by NASA this week.

"What was so good about Sally and what was so good about Guy was the fact that they were good," Bolden said in the video. "They didn't need to explain why they were there."

"Guy was the first person of color to fly and that was absolutely incredible, but it was would have been empty had he been the first and only," added Bolden, who is a veteran of four space shuttle flights.

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Megan Gannon
Space.com Contributing Writer

Megan has been writing for Live Science and Space.com since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity on a Zero Gravity Corp. to follow students sparking weightless fires for science. Follow her on Twitter for her latest project.