African-American Astronauts

Coming to NASA from a variety of backgrounds as military pilots, engineers, scientists, and physicians, these astronauts have made history-making contributions participating in space shuttle missions to perform critical tasks such as deploying and retrieving satellites, performing spacewalks, conducting science and technology research, and piloting and commanding space shuttle missions. More recently, African-American astronauts have played key roles in the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS), performing numerous spacewalks and robotic operations, and conducting research as expedition crewmembers. Several have distinguished themselves as senior leaders at NASA, including as the agency’s administrator. Looking to the future, African-American astronauts are among those selected as candidates for exploration missions in the Artemis Program.

Robert H. Lawrence holds the honor as the first African-American selected for a space program. In June 1967, the U.S. Air Force selected Lawrence as a member of the third group of aerospace research pilots for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) Program, a joint project of the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office to obtain high-resolution photographic imagery of America’s Cold War adversaries.  Tragically, Lawrence lost his life in an aircraft accident in December 1967, and the Air Force cancelled the MOL Program in June 1969. Two months later, seven of the MOL astronauts transferred to NASA’s astronaut corps and all flew missions on the space shuttle. It is highly likely that had Lawrence lived, NASA would have selected him in that group and he would have flown as the first African-American astronaut.  The first person of African heritage to fly in space, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez of Cuba, spent eight days aboard the Soviet Salyut-6 space station in 1980. The Cuban Air Force selected Tamayo Méndez as part of the Soviet Union’s Interkosmos program that flew cosmonauts from friendly socialist countries on short visiting flights to their space stations to conduct experiments for their national space programs and academic institutions. 

In January 1978, NASA selected its largest group of astronauts up to that time, 35 pilots and mission specialists, for the space shuttle program then under development. For the first time, NASA included women and minorities in the selection group, including three African-Americans, one pilot and two mission specialists. One of the three, Guion S. “Guy” Bluford, became the first African-American in space as a mission specialist aboard space shuttle Challenger’s STS-8 mission in 1983. During the six-day flight that featured the first night launch and night landing of the shuttle program, the astronauts deployed a communications satellite for India and performed tests with the remote manipulator system.

Bluford returned to space in October 1985 on Challenger’s STS-61A flight, serving as a mission specialist on Spacelab D1, a scientific mission sponsored by the West German space agency.   The flight marked the first and so far only time that eight astronauts launched aboard a single spacecraft.  During their seven days in orbit, the international crew conducted 75 experiments in a variety of scientific disciplines. 

Selected in the 1978 astronaut class, physicist Ronald E. McNair made his first space flight aboard space shuttle Challenger in February 1984. During the STS-41B mission, McNair and his crewmates deployed two commercial satellites and two of them testing the Manned Maneuvering Unit during the first two untethered spacewalks. McNair, an accomplished jazz saxophonist, became the first person to play a soprano sax in space. Space limitations in the shuttle precluded flying McNair’s favorite tenor sax, so he learned to play the smaller version of the instrument for his space flight. The eight-day mission ended with the first space shuttle landing back at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

McNair’s next flight assignment was also on Challenger, the January 1986 STS-51L mission that included the first teacher in space. Although no spacewalks were planned on the flight, McNair was one of the two astronauts trained for any contingencies that might require a spacewalk. Tragically, the mission ended 63 seconds after liftoff when an explosion caused by a faulty solid rocket booster O-ring, resulted in the loss of the seven-member crew and the space shuttle Challenger. McNair had planned to play a saxophone solo during the STS-51L mission for composer Jean-Michel Jarre’s album Rendez-Vous, including participation in a concert via a live feed. As a tribute to McNair, the album’s sixth and last piece is entitled Last Rendez-Vous (Ron’s Piece) – ‘Challenger’.