Airman and astronaut: Bluford receives 2021 AFROTC Distinguished Alumnus Award

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  • By Staff Sgt. Lauren Silverthorne, Air University Public Affairs

Retired Col. Guion “Guy” Bluford Jr. received the 2021 Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps Distinguished Alumnus Award during a ceremony at Penn State on Oct. 6, 2021.

Bluford studied at Penn State from 1960 to 1964, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering. A distinguished graduate, he earned his commission through the university’s Air Force ROTC Detachment 720 program.

He went on to receive his pilot wings in January 1966. Bulford served with distinction during the Vietnam War, where he flew 144 combat missions. He logged over 5,100 flight hours as a fighter pilot, to include 1,300 hours as a T-38 instructor pilot. Bluford earned a master’s degree (1974) and a doctorate (1978) in aerospace engineering from Air Force Institute of Technology.

Bluford was accepted into the NASA astronaut program in 1978. On Aug. 30, 1983, he added to his notable resume and made history by becoming the first African American in space while a crewmember aboard Space Shuttle Challenger. During the mission, he completed 98 Earth orbits in 145 hours. His last trip to space was on Dec. 2, 1992, as a crewmember aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. Altogether, he completed four flights and spent over 688 hours in space.

Bluford’s AFROTC award ceremony was attended by 160 Detachment 720 cadets and 30 university officials and members of the local community.

“As a youth coming from Nigeria and entering the American educational system, I believe Colonel Bluford and I have shared similar challenges,” said AFROTC Cadet Ifeanyichukwu Agbo. “It has always been my dream to fly and go into space, but I was told that I could not do that because I could not survive in a competitive environment. That was a blow to my confidence, but while many people know Colonel Bluford as the first African American in space, I see him as a cadet from Detachment 720, who despite his ordeals has achieved what many people can only dream. To me, that is the inspiration I draw from him.”

Colonel Lawrence Havird, Detachment 720 commander, reflected on the lasting impact Bluford continues to have on current and future Air Force leaders alike.

“Colonel Bluford’s legacy at Detachment 720 and The Pennsylvania State University is further advanced to a new generation of cadets this week with his recognition as the 2021 Air Force ROTC Distinguished Alumni Award winner and the unveiling of a college of engineering building named in his honor,” said Havird. “He is an inspiration to all cadets that persistence, dedication, and hard work remain the key ingredients to achieve high aspirations and goals.”

Bluford attributes his success to joining the Air Force through ROTC.  It was the stepping stone that enabled him to do what he loved in careers in national defense and aerospace.  He wished the Detachment 720 cadets the same success he experienced in his life and reflected on how he once walked in their shoes.

He told the audience: “Dream big and follow your passion, because you never know where it will take you on this Earth or high above it!”

Previous recipients of the AFROTC Distinguished Alumnus Award include retired Gen. Lori Robinson, a former commander of United States Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command; former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper; and former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Myers.

Later that week, the university dedicated a building at Innovation Park to honor Bluford and his immense contributions throughout his decades of service to the United States as an Airman and astronaut. This building houses the Center for Innovation Metal Processing through Direct Digital Deposition, a collaborative effort between the Applied Research Laboratory, the College of Engineering and the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.