On this day in 1978, NASA graduated its first group of Space Shuttle astronauts which signaled a new day for the space program. Among the group of 35, three Black men went on to leave their mark on history as explorers of space.
Maj. Frederick D. Gregory of Washington, Col. Guion Bluford of Pennsylvania, and the late Ronald McNair of South Carolina were the first Black astronauts to join NASA’s elite Space Shuttle program ranks. Col. Bluford became the first African-American in space after flying on a mission aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. Maj. Gregory is the first African-American to pilot an orbiter craft and also the first to command a space shuttle mission, doing so in 1985 and 1989, respectively.
McNair, unlike Gregory and Bluford, was not a military man and was instead a physicist who was selected as part of the “Thirty-Five New Guys” space shuttle group. McNair was just the second African-American to fly in space, doing so in 1984. However, tragedy would strike the NASA program when McNair and six other crew members, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe, perished in an explosion on January 28, 1986.
Gregory and Bluford have long since retired from both NASA and the U.S. Air Force, entering into civilian life in various capacities but still in support of the nation’s space exploration. Maj. Gregory eventually became NASA’s deputy administrator. Bluford worked as an executive at Northrop Gumman and later became the president of engineering consulting company Aerospace Technology in Cleveland.