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Retired astronaut discusses career path to NASA

  • A photo of Guion Bluford giving a presentation.
  • Guion Bluford giving his presentation.

Posted on February 21, 2018

Have you ever wondered what it's like to float in space? Retired NASA astronaut Guion Bluford said it's similar to being in a pool.

"You can't feel the water and have to push yourself to move around," said Bluford. 

Bluford, who was the first African American to travel to space, gave a keynote speech February 16 at the DeVos Center on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus as part of the two-day symposium, "Roger That! A Celebration of Space Exploration in Honor of Roger B. Chaffee."

Bluford received a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from Pennsylvania State University in 1964, and graduated as a pilot from Williams Air Force Base in 1966. He went on to join the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Cam Ranh Base in Vietnam. 

After returning to the U.S., Bluford entered the Air Force Institute of Technology residency school at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton and worked as a staff development engineer at the base. 

"I could have done this job forever," he said. "I really wanted to be an aerospace engineer and I finally was."

But a new, exciting opportunity came along. When NASA leaders announced they were looking for a new class of astronauts, Bluford decided to apply. Reports said there were 8,000 applicants. When applicants were narrowed down to 200 finalists, Bluford was asked to go to Houston for a physical and mental examination. Then all he could do was wait.

"I kept waiting for that letter," Bluford said, "but in January of 1978, on my drive to work, the radio announced that finalists had been selected. A letter never came, but a phone call did that afternoon."

Bluford was hired with the very first space shuttle class. He worked as a mission specialist on four missions from 1983-1992. 

"It's a fabulous machine," he said. "The shuttle goes from zero to three times the speed of sound in six minutes. You're forced to the back of your seat."

Bluford finds similarities in his life on Earth to what he saw on the shuttle. 

“The stars here look the same,” he said. “From space you can see them closer, but they’re the same. If you ever want to see stars like an astronaut, just go to an IMAX movie. It’s incredibly close.”

Bluford's second mission was the last successful launch of the Challenger. He left NASA and retired from the Air Force in 1993. In 2010, he was inducted into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame.

Learn more about "Roger That!" at

-- written by student writer Kate Ryan