Air Force Col. Guion S. "Guy" Bluford has compared his first blastoff into space to a ride in a high-speed elevator through a bonfire. However, the Aug. 30, 1983, launch that illuminated the skies for miles around was memorable for others because Bluford — a mission specialist who had spent over a year preparing for his trip aboard the space shuttle Challenger — was the first African-American astronaut in history. (The first black man in outer space had been Cuban Col. Arnaldo Tamayo-Mendez on the Soviet mission Salyut 6 in 1980.)
Bluford was born in Philadelphia, Pa., to a teacher mother and engineer father who encouraged all of their three sons to work hard and fulfill their personal goals. Guy, who constructed model airplanes as a child, studied math and science with his eyes on an aerospace engineering career. In 1964, he graduated from Penn State with a degree in his chosen field, and then enrolled in ROTC and attended flight school, earning his pilots' wings in 1966. He flew 144 combat missions, 65 over North Vietnam, as a member of the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam.
Following his tour in Vietnam, Bluford spent five years as a flight instructor at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. He then entered the Air Force Institute of Technology and earned his master's and Ph.D., again in aerospace engineering. As he finished his dissertation in 1978, Bluford learned he was one of 35 candidates selected from more than 10,000 applicants to attend NASA's astronaut program.
Bluford's first mission, on the STS-8, was the Challenger's third, but the first to experience a night launch and night landing. After completing 98 orbits of the earth in 145 hours, the ship landed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on Sept. 5, 1983. Since then, Bluford has served as a mission specialist on the STS 61-A in 1985, the STS-39 in 1991, and the STS-53 in 1992. He has logged over 688 hours in space.
Bluford retired from active duty in 1993, earned an MBA in 1997, and now serves as vice president and general manager of the Science and Engineering Group, Aerospace Sector of Federal Data Corporation in Maryland. A recipient of many medals, awards, and accolades, he was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1997.