In April of 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made headlines around the world for being the first person in space. One month later, Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut in space. Two years and a month after Shepard’s initial flight, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in orbit. Finally, 20 years and two months after Tereshkova’s trip beyond our atmosphere, Guion S. Bluford became the first African-American to reach space.

History beyond our world

Although it took the better part of the 20th century for an African-American astronaut to make it to space, NASA owes much of its legacy to people of color. The recent movie, Hidden Figures, highlights three female mathematicians, without whom the space program would have been severely lacking. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson made reaching space possible, beginning the legacy of African-Americans reaching out into the cosmos.

Dedicated to the cause

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Guion S. Bluford traveled onboard the space shuttle Challenger‘s third flight in 1983. That voyage launched him into the record books as the first African-American in space. It was the first night launch, making it a prime TV spectacle for viewers young and old across the country, even though it took place at 2:30 in the morning.

During his six-day mission in orbit, Bluford and his crew launched a satellite for India, made contact with a rogue communications satellite, ran some experiments, and tested the mechanical arm onboard the shuttle. When the craft came back down to earth and landed at Edward’s Air Force Base in California, it marked the end of the most successful and uninterrupted shuttle missions to date. Bluford flew three more shuttle missions before taking his two degrees in aerospace engineering, a Master’s and a Doctorate, and becoming the president of an engineering firm in Ohio.