Dr. Guion Bluford

Dr. Guion Bluford, the first African American astronaut, speaking at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

On a blustery, rainy day in February — not unlike the day in 1983 when the first African-American astronaut stepped onto the Challenger shuttle — Dr. Guion “Guy” Bluford held a Q&A session at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.

Bluford, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran, met with a small press group before taking college students’ questions at the university’s Meridian ballroom on Monday, February 19. As one of only a handful of people of color in the room, I asked a range of questions about his space career and current events in the field.

As a NASA geek, I cannot express the honor of having a captive audience with the first person of my ethnicity to do something so astounding. To this day, at the age of 75, he is still supporting, meeting with, and encouraging more people of color and women to explore space and follow their dreams.

St. Louis American: What got you interested in aerospace engineering?

Guy Bluford: I like airplanes. Remember: I grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s. I was born during WWII. The exciting technology was jets and atomic energy. So, kids everywhere made model airplanes, rockets, all that sort of stuff. And if you walked into my room as a kid, I'd have models and pictures of airplanes all over the place. I enjoyed it so much, I decided to make it a career.

The American: Are you still in touch with anyone from your astronaut class?

Guy Bluford: My astronaut class met in December (2017). We got selected 40 years ago, and so we met as part of an astronaut reunion. There's 25 of us left out of 35.

The American: Have you had a chance to meet Dr. Mae Jemison?

Guy Bluford: I know Mae. I go back to the astronaut office once a year for an astronaut physical. And they tell me I'm getting older and more decrepit all the time. And when I do that, I look up the black astronauts. Right now, we have 44 astronauts in the office. We got three (black ones): Stephanie Wilson, Victor Glover, and Jeanette Epps.

(Editor’s note: According to the Houston Chronicle, Epps was removed in mid-to-late January from her mission assignment in the space program, where she was set to be the first African American to serve as a resident crew member aboard the International Space Station. Little is known about the reasons behind it.)

And my curiosity is running wild as to what happened [with Epps] … I have ideas, but I don't even want to speculate. And I'm tempted to not even push it on to that. If she talks, she talks. If she doesn't, she doesn't. I have suspicions, but I won't go beyond that.

The American: Do you have any involvement with the Next Frontier (a National Space Council meeting inside Kennedy’s Space Station Processing Facility, scheduled for February 21, to discuss “Moon, Mars, and Worlds Beyond: Winning the Next Frontier”).

Guy Bluford: I'm wondering what it is about, too. The space program has had its ups and downs. We had a couple of accidents, we had to refocus, we did the moon. And then we had a change in administration, and we said, “No, that's too expensive; we can't do that. And then we'll take a look at asteroids.” People are always concerned about the cost, but you need to set a long-term goal, ignore the costs, make a commitment, and go from there.

If you take a look at the International Space Station, it’s amazing we were able to lead a consortium of countries to put the ISS up. I think that's what we're going to have to do to go to Mars and possibly back to the moon. My biggest concern is that we may break up that consortium at the end of the ISS.

The American: What are your thoughts on what Elon Musk is doing with SpaceX?

Guy Bluford: I'm excited. He's sharp. He just pumped off Falcon 9 Heavy. It's basically his money, so I'm impressed. He landed two boosters. The boosters that pushed the Falcon airborne and landed — I swore that was not possible until I saw him do it. He's going in the right direction.

The American: If you had a chance to go back into space, would you?

Guy Bluford: I'm too old. If I were 40 years old, yes! But I'm too old for it. It's like playing football. Little kid playing football: Pee-Wee football, high school football, into college playing football, and then whoa! I'm in the pros. There's a point where you walk away from it. And I walked away after flying four times, and I'm very pleased. But, you do turn it over to younger people, and that's the normal way of doing things.

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