CAPE CANAVERAL — They speak the language of Zero-G and payload. They travel to their off-earth assignments in spacecrafts. Some have walked in space.
They are United States astronauts, and on June 5, four of them, including the first African American to go on a mission to space, were inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame during an outdoor ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex.
Guion “Guy” Bluford Jr., a four-time Mission Specialist aboard space shuttles Challenger and Discovery, received his medal and his place in the pantheon of excellence, joining such astronauts as John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Sally Ride. The other inductees were Kenneth Bowersox, Frank Culbertson Jr., and Kathryn Thornton.
Michael Coats, fellow crew member, hall of famer, director of the Johnson Space Center, and who introduced Bluford at the ceremony called Bluford’s career a remarkable achievement.
“He was an unflappable, capable, reliable crewman with a good personality,” said Coats.
Coasts pointed out that in addition to being the first African American in space, Bluford was on the first shuttle mission to launch and land at night, first to fly on a shuttle with eight astronauts; and first to be in a crew with two people whose height measured more than six feet.
Space shuttles launch into space like rockets, orbit the earth to about 250 miles up and return as gliders. They are NASA’s main source of transportation into space, especially to the International Space Station and to repair satellites, for instance.
None of the more than 20 astronauts spoke of the end of the storied if not deadly shuttle program, which ends after Discovery and Endeavor complete their final missions later this year, scheduled for mid-September and mid-November respectively. Last month, shuttle Atlantis completed its last mission. It is estimated that about 8,000 people associated with the shuttle program in the Cocoa Beach area will lose their livelihood, and about 23,000 people in all of NASA. Some have wondered how supplies and astronauts will continue to go to the International Space Station after the shuttle’s retirement.
Inductee Bowersox, who knows only too well what it is like not to have a ride home from the space station, works for a company that may have the technology to take parts and, later humans, into space. After the shuttle Columbia accident, and the fleet was grounded, Bowersox, who was on the space station, had to remain for five and a half months, hitching a ride with the Russians to get home.
On June 4, Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX, launched successfully its privately operated Falcon 9 rocket into space.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the launch puts SpaceX closer to being able to carry cargo to the International Space Station.
“This launch of the Falcon 9 gives us even more confidence that a resupply vehicle will be available after the space shuttle fleet is retired,” Bolden said in a statement.
Bluford said that the various milestones in his career came from chasing dreams. He applied to join the space program when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration started using scientists and engineers in the space program.
He recalled the phone call inviting him to join the astronaut corps.
“It was the middle of January, and there was snow up to here,” Bluford said, showing the audience waist-deep snow.”
’It doesn’t snow in Houston; want to come to Houston?”’ Bluford said then-Johnson Space Center Director George Abbey told him.
Bluford’s astronaut career, which started August 1979, was preceded by an accomplished career as an aerospace engineer. By the time he completed his last space shuttle mission in 1992, he had logged 688 spacecraft flight hours. As an aircraft pilot, he logged more than 5,000 hours.
After leaving NASA in 1993, Bluford went on to be a senior executive in several aerospace engineering companie, including Northrop Grumman Corp. He is currently president of the Aerospace Technology Group, an engineering consulting organization in Cleveland, Ohio.
Photo: Guy Bluford