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First African-American in space inspires young engineers of color; Bluford speaks at PSU Harrisburg

By Laura Hayes

Posted 2/13/19

In 1977, NASA was looking for astronauts.

Dr. Guion Bluford Jr. was coming up for reassignment in the U.S. Air Force.

Bluford, who graduated with a degree in aerospace from Pennsylvania State …

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First African-American in space inspires young engineers of color; Bluford speaks at PSU Harrisburg


In 1977, NASA was looking for astronauts.

Dr. Guion Bluford Jr. was coming up for reassignment in the U.S. Air Force.

Bluford, who graduated with a degree in aerospace from Pennsylvania State University in 1964, decided to apply.

A few years later, he became the first African-American to travel in space.

“I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be an astronaut because I like airplanes more so than space,” Bluford told a Penn State Harrisburg audience Thursday.

However, Bluford decided to throw his hat in along with thousands of other hopefuls.

He didn’t hear anything until one January morning in 1978. Bluford heard on the radio that NASA had selected 35 astronauts, and he was anxious to find out who they were.

Bluford was at work for a couple of hours when he received a phone call from someone who said they were from NASA.

“He started out the conversation by saying, ‘How’s the weather in Dayton, Ohio?’ The snow was about up to here,” Bluford said, gesturing over his head.

He said he told the NASA staff member that he was sick of the snow at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where he was stationed.

“He said, ‘Well, I can solve that problem for you because it doesn’t snow in Houston. Why don’t you come to Houston?’” he recalled.

Born in Philadelphia, Bluford called Penn State his “launch pad,” and he ended up going to space four times, logging nearly 700 hours.

The Feb. 7 lecture was held by the School of Science, Engineering and Technology and the Penn State Harrisburg Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. The event in the Mukund S. Kulkarni Theatre in the Student Enrichment Center was sold out.

Nicole Hill, president of the school’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and  a  junior electrical engineering major, said they’ve been planning Bluford’s visit for a year.

“We have a lot of minorities in our group, and we just wanted a big figure to come that could kind of inspire us because we don’t get that too much,” she said.

Hill said at first they considered to have him visit the club, but they thought it would be beneficial for the whole campus.

There aren’t many engineers of color in the field that future engineers can look up to, Hill said.

“To see him, it’s like, ‘This is possible. I’m going to do it,’” Hill said.

Bluford encourages students to do something that they enjoy. He loved airplanes and wanted to become an aerospace engineer.

Bluford’s first mission was the STS-8 in 1983, the third flight of the Challenger space shuttle. Bluford said it was the first night launch and landing.

On his second shuttle mission in 1985, which was the last successful flight of Challenger before it exploded in 1986, Bluford and other astronauts, including some Germans, conducted experiments in a space lab. Bluford’s third mission in 1991, on Discovery, studied star patterns and auroras.

His final shuttle mission was on Discovery in December 1992, carrying a classified payload for the Department of Defense.

“I’d tell you what we did on that flight, but I’d have to shoot all of you,” he joked.

Bluford, 76, retired from NASA and the Air Force in 1993. He is  now the president of Aerospace Technology in Cleveland.

It takes about two-and-a-half years to train to be qualified to go into space. During his talk, Bluford described life in space and shared stories and photos from his missions.

The most memorable thing about space was the view out the window and zero gravity, he told the Press & Journal before his talk.

“The thing that always amazed me is you get into orbit and you look at the horizon and say, ‘Oh my goodness. Columbus was right. It’s curved,’” he told the audience.

He wasn’t scared, but excited.

“Once I flew the first time, I knew I had to do it again,” Bluford said.

The shuttle went around the earth every 90 minutes — meaning 45 minutes of daylight and 45 minutes of darkness.

Miles above the earth, Bluford said you can see a thousand miles in any direction, including geological features such as a volcano erupting in Japan or the expanse of the Grand Canyon. It’s more difficult to see man-made features, he said.

During his third flight, they flew through an aurora over Australia.

Rookie astronauts, he said, are so mesmerized by the view out the window that they have to be reminded that they’re out there to do work.

“One of the things that’s nice about being in the astronaut program is you can walk in space,” Bluford said.

He said they needed to be careful not to take too large of a step outside of the space shuttle while untethered. Tools and equipment can’t be let go. They will float off.

Being tethered to the ship limited astronauts on what they could do, he said. Manned maneuvering units helped astronauts propel themselves throughout space without being tethered.

People tend to forget that astronauts live on the shuttle while on space. He likened it to camping out with unique features.

There was no running water. Bluford said they would squirt water into a cloth to sponge bathe. Bluford said he jokes with children that astronauts don’t use the restroom. In zero gravity, the things that you want to go down, may go up, he said.

Toothbrushes were pre-wrapped with toothpaste already on the brush. Toothpaste had to be swallowed instead of spitting.

Food is put on the shuttle about a month before the flight, and most of it is dehydrated. They experimented with sandwiches on Bluford’s first mission. The problem, he said, was the first sandwich would come apart while trying to make the second.

Exercise was important to keep your muscles toned. Some astronauts on Bluford’s mission would velcro their sleeping bags to the ceiling or wall. Bluford, on the other hand, didn’t like the sleeping bag and would tie a string around his waist and the other to a locker and floated in the room.

Bluford’s father was also an engineer. Representation is important to let people know that they can do it, Bluford said.

Hill took note of Bluford’s perseverance.

“There’s no reason why I can’t be doing the same thing,” she said.