From the time he was a kid, former NASA astronaut and retired U.S. Air Force officer Guion Bluford Jr. always had an interest in model airplanes.

In the classroom, his favorite subjects were math and science. However, it wasn’t until the Philadelphia native became a student at Overbrook High School, that he realized he wanted to turn his passions into a career.

“I had some great support growing up and I also knew the importance of having an education,” Bluford said. “My father was a mechanical engineer, so I was exposed to the technical field at a very young age. However, it wasn’t until I was a student at Overbrook that I decided I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer.

“While I was there, I participated in different activities and was involved with various science clubs, but it was at that school that I really started to see the vision for my future,” he added. “I truly believe that my experience at Overbrook fostered my interest in going into a technical field.”

Bluford applied to be an astronaut in 1977 after graduating from Penn State with a degree in aerospace engineering, undergoing pilot training in the U.S. Air Force, flying 144 combat missions in Southeast Asia as an F4C fighter pilot with 65 missions over North Vietnam, and receiving a master’s degree and doctorate in aerospace engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology.

His career at NASA began in 1979. Four years later, he became the first African American to travel into space when he served as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Bluford would go on to complete three more NASA missions.

By the time he retired in 1993, Bluford had logged over 5,200 hours in high-performance jets and has flown 688 hours in space on four space shuttle missions.

“I never aspired to be an astronaut,” Bluford said. “I just wanted to have a good time in a field that I was interested in. However, me wanting a career in a field I was passionate about led me on the path to becoming an astronaut. As I look back on my career, some of my proudest moments include flying in space.

“I worked on various flight teams and I really enjoyed those experiences,” he added. “Going to Penn State and earning a PhD in aerospace engineering are also some things that I’m extremely proud of during my career. It’s something that I don’t take for granted and they’re memories that I hold dear to my heart.”

Last month, Bluford was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1997 and the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2010. He is also the first African American to be awarded NASA’s coveted Gold Astronaut Pin and the United States Air Force’s Command Pilot Wings.

“When I first heard that I would be going into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, I was excited,” Bluford said. “It’s a special honor that highlighted those who had made a contribution to aviation and aerospace. I was one of five that were enshrined. I really enjoyed seeing some of my old friends as well as some of the other people who were enshrined. It was also nice to see some of my friends who were astronauts and in the military.”

Bluford said that his life is an example of turning a passion into a career. He hopes that more kids will follow his path and go into the fields of aerospace, technology, and engineering in the future.

“There is a lot of excitement going on in these fields and I sense it will continue to grow and develop,” Bluford said. “I definitely think these industries will continue to evolve for many years to come. I’ve had a wonderful experience in this field, so I would tell kids who are thinking about having a career in aerospace, technology, and engineering that these are all great fields.

“I would also encourage kids to pursue a field in which they’re excited about,” he added. “I know for me, aerospace was that because I had a strong interest in aviation and airplanes. I would encourage them to chase their dreams. If I can do it, they can do it too.”

chill@phillytrib.com (215) 893-5716

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