Even though Black History Month have come and gone for a number of times over the years, how many of us can answer with true confidence when asked: “Who was the first African-American astronaut?
By: Ringo Bones
No, it is not Astronaut Jones from that famous SNL comic routine played by Tracey Morgan – in fact, there are two contenders that could qualify as the first African-American astronaut – and one of them, during his training, has even paved way for NASA’s Space Shuttle program. As with the state of the space race when there was still a Soviet Union, the first person of black African descent to go to space was Cuban cosmonaut Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez during the then Soviet Union’s space program.
One very worthy contender as the first African-American astronaut was Major Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. Even though he tragically dies during a training accident back in December 8, 1967 at Edwards Air Force Base in California, Major Lawrence’s training flight in a modified F-104 Starfighter equipped with hydrogen peroxide maneuvering jets that can enable it to maneuver in altitudes where the air is too thin for conventional flaps and other aerodynamic control surfaces to work. The data gathered during Major Lawrence’s training flight proved very useful in NASA’s Space Shuttle program several years later. Major Lawrence officially became a NASA astronaut after being selected by the US Air Force’s Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) program back in June 1967.
Another very worthy contender as the first African-American astronaut is Guyon “Guy” Bluford, Jr., although he is indisputably the first African-American astronaut because he actually got into low-Earth-orbit. Bluford is now a retired Colonel of the US Air Force and a former NASA astronaut who during his heyday participated in four Space Shuttle flights between 1983 and 1992. In 1983, as a member of the crew of of the Space Shuttle Challenger on Mission STS-8, Bluford became the first African-American in space.
Before being selected by the 1978 NASA Group to become a full-fledged astronaut in August 1979, Bluford’s career mirrors that of some “adventurous” Starfleet officer in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek because after attending pilot training at Williams Air Force Base and receiving his pilot wings in January 1966, Bluford then went to an F-4C Phantom combat crew training in Arizona and Florida and was then assigned to the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron in Cam Ranh Bay, of then South Vietnam. Bluford flew 144 combat missions, 65 of which were over the then North Vietnam.