November 22 – Happy Birthday, Guy Bluford

Posted on November 22, 2013

One of the things that the U.S. can be most proud of is space exploration. I am so excited that many different nations participate in space missions now, and that private businesses are getting involved as well, but the United States has been one of the leaders so far. We currently have no vehicle to reach outer space, with the retirement of the Space Shuttles, but I hope that changes soon!

Guion “Guy” Bluford can be proud of his contributions to space exploration. He flew on four missions, including a German Spacelab mission with three European astronauts. Bluford was the first African-American in space and the second person of African ancestry (after a Cuban-born cosmonaut who flew for the Soviet Union). All his education in aerospace engineering, laser physics, and business (he has earned B.S., M.S., Ph.D., and M.B.A. degrees!); all his piloting training and flights, including combat training and 144 combat missions in Vietnam; all his training at NASA probably couldn't prepare him for one of his missions:

Returning a flag to a Boy Scout troop in Colorado.

Perhaps Bluford was chosen for the task because he had flown on the Challenger Space Shuttle on two of his missions. Perhaps he was chosen because he had been an Eagle Scout.

You see, a Boy Scout troop in Monument, Colorado, had a Scoutmaster who had been a major in the U.S. Air Force assigned to the Space Command. The troop ordered a U.S. flag from the Valley Forge Flag Company and arranged for it to be flown over the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., in 1985. Then it was submitted to NASA for possible inclusion on a shuttle flight. (I didn't realize that you could do this. It seems like a bit of a waste of precious weight—it would be better to use that weight for another experiment, wouldn't it?)

At any rate, the flag was included in the official flight kit of the Challenger on what ended up being its fateful final flight. The flag was sealed in a plastic bag. Next to it were several souvenir medallions. On January 28, 1986, the Challenger lifted off—and 73 seconds after launch the Space Shuttle broke apart, killing all seven crewmembers.

That was a sad, sad day. I'm sure Bluford knew some of the astronauts who died that day very well. The rescuer workers were not able to rescue anyone, but they did bring up Challenger wreckage from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. And...they found the flag and the medallions. The medallions had melted into a single lump of metal, but the flag was just fine. Undamaged. Still sealed in its plastic bag. It wasn't even wet.

Guy Bluford was sent to Monument on December 18, 1986, almost a year after the tragedy, to restore the flag to the Boy Scout troop. Since then the Challenger Flag, as it is called, has been used for official ceremonies for the U.S. Constitution's Bicentennial, for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, and for the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. It is the first flag to have been returned to Washington and re-flown above the Capitol.

Also on this date:

Fantastic Flyers Day 

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