November 1983: Guion Bluford speaks at a press conference in City Hall upon his homecoming
after his first successful space mission.
By Yael Borofsky for PhillyHistory.org
Guion Bluford — he goes by Guy — is the man at the center of all that attention in the photo to the left. Nearly thirty years after becoming the first African American to go to space, he doesn’t exactly remember what he said in that City Hall press conference, but given that the event marked his homecoming, he probably doesn’t need to.
“It was so long ago,” Bluford told PhillyHistory. “I do remember it was exciting and I was happy to be home.”
Bluford also remembers that being in Philadelphia was a whirlwind. After completing the successful STS 8 mission in September of 1983 and spending a whole month on the road doing public relations events all over the country, Bluford was finally back home for four days, though he was staying at the Four Seasons downtown, not his childhood home in West Philly.
In addition to the City Hall press conference, then-Mayor Bill Green, III, presented him with the Philadelphia bowl (Bluford still prizes it in his trophy case, he says), he met with then-Governor of Pennsylvania Dick Thornburgh, and soon-to-be Mayor Wilson Goode. He visited with sick children at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, and he’s not entirely certain, but thinks he may have also spoken one other time in Society Hill. To cap it all off, Bluford served as grand marshal of the 64th annual Thanksgiving Day parade.
The city had every reason to celebrate the man. Bluford would go on to complete three more successful space missions — the STS 61-A, STS-39 and STS-53. But the city could have treated him as a public hero and role model even before that. After graduating from the Air Force ROTC with a degree in aeronautical engineering from Penn State University in 1964 — his dream since at least high school — Bluford decided to join the U.S. Air Force as a pilot.
“I was going to go into the Air Force as an engineer and spend three to five years and decide, at that point, if I was going to stay in the Air Force or go work in industry,” Bluford recalled. “Between my junior and senior years, I went to ROTC summer camp… and at the end of the four weeks I took a physical and the doctor asked me why I didn’t want to be a pilot. So I decided to go in as a pilot. I thought I’d be a better engineer if I knew how to fly airplanes.”
According to Bluford’s NASA biography, he flew a total of 144 combat missions, including 65 over North Vietnam.
While in the Air Force he received two degrees from the Air Force Institute of Technology and eventually became a NASA astronaut in 1979. As if space flight was not enough, during his time working for NASA he also received his MBA from the University of Houston, Clear Lake.
Bluford says that when he began working for NASA in 1979 he was aware that an African American had never before traveled to space, he just wasn’t focused on being the one to do it. When it turned out that he was the man to assume that role, he says he was both honored and humbled by the privilege.
“I realized I was setting an example not only for African Americans, but also African American astronauts, and letting people know that African Americans can be astronauts and do just a good a job as everyone else,” Bluford said. “When I went into the astronaut program my goal was to make a contribution and I’m proud of the one I made.”
During his NASA career, Bluford confirmed that he logged 688 hours in space.
Today Bluford lives in Cleveland, Ohio and is the President of the Aerospace Technology group, having begun what he considers to be his “third career” in “industry” after retiring from NASA and the Air Force in 1993.
Though he and his family currently have no plans to move back to Philadelphia, Bluford says that then as now, he will always think of Philadelphia as home.