Thursday, February 8, 2007

African-American Scientists: Guion S. Bluford, Jr.

Given the recent news of out-of-control astronauts, let's take a moment to revisit the heroic and accomplished record of the others. For instance, today, astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria broke the U.S. record for most time performing space walks as he performed some maintenance work on the International Space Station (CNN Story).

In continuing honor of Black History Month, this Thursday's tribute is for another astronaut of great accomplishment: Guion S. Bluford, Jr., known as "Guy". Bluford, who is now age 65, is an aerospace engineer, a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force, retired astronaut with NASA's space shuttle program, and the first African-American to go into space.

His Wikipedia biography (which has a link to his NASA bio):

Guy was born in Philadelphia, PA, in 1942. I wonder about his first name, Guion. It leaves me scratching my head about the exact pronunciation, but I have to say it rates pretty high on my name-ranking system. Given his nickname is "Guy" I would conclude it is pronounced "guy-on." I couldn't find any information about his youth, except that he was an Eagle Scout with the Boy Scouts of America. Bluford received his BS in aerospace engineering from Penn State in 1964, then attended pilot training, earning his wings in 1966. He was promptly shipped off to Vietnam where he flew 144 missions, 65 of which were over North Vietnam, in less than two years. He soon returned to the U.S. where he became a flight trainer and executive.

Always busy achieving, Bluford found time to earn an MS in aerospace engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1974, then his PhD in aerospace engineering with a minor in laser physics from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1978. Apparently his scientific research in his pre-astronaut years revolved around computational fluid dynamics regarding air flow around wing designs for planes and missiles and missle thrust vectoring. He has published at least three papers on these topics, but most of his work was for the military and not shared with the academic world.

Within a year of earning his Ph.D., Bluford became an astronaut with NASA (though he wasn't the first African-American accepted as an astronaut, that honor goes to Maj. Robert Lawrence, Jr., who died in a plane crash prior to going into space). Bluford became the first African-American in space onboard the Challenger in 1983 (the first mission to launch and land at night). He served on three additional space shuttle flights between then and 1992. He was a specialist operating the robotic arm (remote manipulator system), worked with avionics systems, was a key figure on Spacelab experiments, and dealt with payload safety issues. He has logged 688 hours in space. He was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1997.

Of interesting note is Bluford's association with the Challenger Flag, a U.S. Capitol flag that was given to a Boy Scout troop, then flown on the last Challenger mission. After the flag was recovered (undamaged!) from the remains of the Challenger, Bluford (being an Eagle Scout and astronaut) was the emissary who returned the Challenger flag to Boy Scout Troop 514 of Monument, Colorado in December, 1986. On December 18 of that year, he presented the flag to the troop in a special ceremony at Falcon Air Force Base. The flag has since been honored at a number of ceremonies, including the Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City.

Bluford left NASA in 1993 to take a position as Vice President/General Manager of the Engineering Services Division of a company called NYMA inc., in Brook Park, Ohio. I couldn't find a home page for the company, but they do some sort of engineering contracts for the Department of Defense.

On his NASA page, Bluford's hobbies are listed as reading, swimming, jogging, racquetball, handball, and scuba, but in his own words, during his astronaut years: "The job is so fantastic, you don’t need a hobby. The hobby is going to work."


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