Guion Bluford, 1st African American in space, visits Great Lakes Science Center and talks of shuttle

Cleveland astronaut continues to look skyward
Posted at 6:18 PM, Apr 07, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-07 18:22:20-04

When he looked at images of men and women who have ridden rockets into earth orbit and beyond as part of America's space program, the man understood the dangers each had gone through riding atop vehicles with millions of pounds of thrust behind them.

"Space is very hostile environment so you have to be very careful," said Guion Bluford in a matter-of-fact voice.  "We work pretty hard in reducing the amount of danger."

Bluford should know.  He has rocketed to space four times in the American Space Shuttle program.  Bluford is the first African American to be rocketed into space and live for days in orbit around the Earth.  Bluford is walking amid some of the hardware and items of the U.S. space program at the NASA Visitors Center at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland.

At age 74, he still moves easily across the floor, his eyes catching every corner of the exhibit.  The visit marks his first time in the special exhibit at the science center.  But at every turn, he is familiar with every item and photograph.

"That's the suit Buzz Aldrin wore," said Bluford as he looked at the space suit worn by the second man who walked on the moon in 1969.  "Buzz and I scuba dive twice a year," he said nonchalantly.  Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin's Apollo 11 mission where he and Neil Armstrong were the first to land on the moon was eight years before Bluford was accepted in the U.S astronauts program.  Bluford was inspired by that mission and the ones which came before and after.

It was during the mid-1960s, Bluford was a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot flying 144 combat missions over Vietnam and other areas of Southeast Asia.  Before that, he had earned a degree as an aerospace engineer.  When the opportunity came to apply for the astronaut program, he jumped at it.  "I applied for the program in '77 along with 8,000 other people and got selected," he said.

Between 1983 and 1992, Bluford was aboard space shuttles four times.  Each time, he worked a different job in the vehicle.  For the last 22 years, Bluford and his wife, Linda, have lived in the Greater Cleveland area, where the former astronaut was an officer in an aerospace company.  Cleveland is also home to NASA Glenn Research Center where Bluford has worked as a consultant.  

"I knew in high school that I wanted to be an aerospace engineer," he said as he looked at an Apollo mission space capsule which had been in space but was not in its retirement in the NASA Glenn exhibit at the science center.  "It was strange to everybody, but a lot of that excitement came from going to museums."

Visitors to the science center noticed Bluford and quickly surrounded him, taking photographs with the man who had been to space several times.  Usually, Bluford said unless he is asked about his background he says very little to people about his accomplishments in space.  He is low-key about his background.  Until he is asked about it and then he is off like a rocket on high-powered fuel.

Great Lakes Science Center president and chief executive officer Kirsten Ellenbogen caught up with the astronaut and escorted him through the exhibit area of NASA space hardware.  But really, it was Bluford who was the escort.  He knew most of the names of astronauts listed and could tell her detailed information about the items on exhibit, including the space capsule. 

"He's beyond a pioneer," said Ellenbogen. "Spaceflight is about stretching science and technology as far as it can go and he is really the pinnacle of that," she added, her eyes bright with meeting a man who has looked at the earth hundreds of miles above it as his craft circled the globe every 90 minutes.

As the first African-American to go into space, Bluford said he understood the importance of his position, especially for other black people.  "I recognized that I was a role model and I wanted to do as good a job as possible to tell people that African Americans can be just as good astronauts as they can be as scientists, engineers, and pilots," he said, his eyes constantly scanning the exhibit.

About 550 people have traveled into space since Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first to fly in earth orbit in 1961. Guion Bluford is in that small group of people who have left earth and achieved weightlessness as they orbited the planet.  Every year, he visits NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for an annual physical examination. Bluford has no plans to return to space.

Still, as he walked through the exhibit of space materials, photographs, and videos, his eyes looked intently at each item.  He knew space well.  He was one of those American heroes who left the bounds of planet Earth and floated in orbit, riding the outstretched wings of the American space shuttle.  He did not say what he was thinking, but it was apparent although his feet were firmly planted on the ground, his mind was somewhere high in the sky, circling the planet.