Astronaut Pilot Gregory

AFRO Archived History

by: Elizabeth M. Oliver Originally Published June 22, 1985
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In 1985 the AFRO profiled Col. Frederick Drew Gregory soon after his historic flight trip into outer space. Gregory was the first Black pilot of a space shuttle.

June 22, 1985

Col. Frederick Drew Gregory, 44, United States Air Force, and a native of Washington, D.C., served as a pilot of the Challenger Space Shuttle Mission 51-B, Spacelab 3 which launched at Kennedy Space Center, FLA. April 29, 12 noon EDT.

 

The astronaut was responsible for operating the Shuttle along with the Commander Col. Robert Overmyer, 49, United States Marine Corps of Lorain, OH.

The seven-member crew also included three mission specialist-astronauts, Drs. Don Lind, Norman Thagard and William Thornton and two payload specialist-scientists, Drs. Lodewijk von de Berg and Taylor Wang.

All were selected for their engineering skills for this flight which NASA describes as the first operational flight for the European Space Agency-developed space laboratory. Fifteen experiments were conducted during the 7-day Spacelab 3 mission.

Gregory’s job was critical and all depended upon his skill as a pilot as the Spacelab circled Earth at an altitude of 219 statute miles with an orbital inclination of 57 degrees. He performed with the proficiency expected of a fully qualified astronaut.

However, probably no other astronaut of any race has a more historic background than Col. Gregory. His uncle, the late Dr. Charles Drew, the celebrated blood bank scientist, is listed among the world’s most noted scientists. His research on blood plasma led to the development of blood banks in the early years of World War II, thus saving countless lives then and yet today.

An unassuming, pleasant and serious man, Col. Gregory has often received the respect and plaudits of his Spacelab crew members who know of his background and they regard him not as a black American but a famous American.

On his own, Gregory has earned the distinguished position he holds. He was graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy with a Bachelor of Science degree and he received a Master’s in information systems from George Washington University.

Gregory trained as a helicopter pilot and retrained as a fighter pilot, flying F-4 Phantoms. He was research engineering pilot for the Air Force and NASA from 1971 to 1978. He became an astronaut in 1978 after he had logged over 5,100 hours flight time. He holds FAA commercial and instrument certificates for single and multi-engine airplanes and helicopters.

Accustomed to honors and fame, Col. Gregory is most proud of the salutes given him by his own people although he does not discount the others, the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, the Meritorious Service Medal and the Air Medal with 15 Oak Leaf Clusters.

The two black honors which stand high in his long list of prizes are the Distinguished National Scientist Award of the National Society of Black Engineers and the one given him in 1983 by a group of young men “The Bobtillions,” at their coming-out banquet on Capitol Hill in Washington.

As their guest speaker, Col. Gregory inspired them to “reach as high as the sky and beyond.”

Gregory automatically becomes the commander of the next space mission he undertakes.

On this first mission, he carried with him the Spingarn Medal his uncle, Dr. Charles Drew, was awarded for his blood plasma research; the flag of the District of Columbia and some mementos from Washington school children.

The road that led to Col. Gregory’s becoming a famed astronaut has been long and rocky simply because he is a black American. Although he came from well-educated, accomplished and well respected ancestors he had to have a letter of recommendation from a congressman to enter the Air Force Academy. At that time, Washington, D.C. had none.

Finally, New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell gave him the letter in 1960. Difficulty, because of race, also accompanied his attempt to get into the space program, an area which was at first not designed to include black men.

His first cousin, Mrs. Bee Bee (Blood Bank) Drew Price, daughter of Dr. Drew and wife of Dr. Kline Price of Columbia, MD., reveals how the family gave encouragement to Col. Gregory to persist.

Among those also constantly reminding the astronaut that persistence is necessary, is his aunt, Mrs. Charles Drew, widow of the blood plasma scientist, who also resides in Columbia.

However, most of all is Col. Gregory’s mother, Mrs. Nora Drew Gregory of Washington and earlier his father, the late Francis A. Gregory, who inspired him through their own careers which required great sacrifice and persistence.

The elder Gregory is said to have set up shop in the family backyard so that his son could build a garage. This came about when young Gregory was not getting the training needed for college preparatory.

The elder Gregory, a MIT engineering graduate, could not get work in his field because of his race, so he became a teacher and was later named superintendent of schools in Washington, “through persistence.”

His mother, a retired teacher, keeps abreast of the times today and is now spearheading a drive to raise $500,000 for a mural of the life and times of Martin Luther King, Jr. for the King Library.

Col. Gregory’s latest award presented him by the young men “Bobtillions” was sponsored by other Columbia admirers, Dr. and Mrs. Vincent R. Blake and Maryland’s only black representative, Congressman Parren J. Mitchell.

Mrs. Blake (Dr. Ruteena Blake) arranged for the 22 young men to be presented to society on the occasion of the first banquet of its kind “not so much as to become socially aware but to become acquainted with some of the greatest Americans of our time.”

Col. Gregory and his wife Barbara and their two children reside in Houston, nearby the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. The children are Fred Gregory and Heather Gregory. Fred is a Stanford University student aspiring to walk in his father’s footsteps.

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