April 29 will mark the 32nd anniversary of the first time a space shuttle was piloted by a Black American, Fred D. Gregory, a native Washingtonian.

Fred D. Gregory, 76, was the first Black man to pilot a space shuttle. (Photo by Byron Scott)

Gregory and the crew of the Orbiter Challenger space shuttle lifted off at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, bound for outer space in Spring 1985. “You’re just stunned . . . after 12 hours, probably less than that, you feel very comfortable in that new environment and you essentially forget about the burdens of walking, or sitting or what gravity forces you to do. You just moved into this new realm,” he told the AFRO.

The 76-year-old, currently living in Annapolis, Md., graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy n 1964 and flew hundreds of combat rescue missions over Vietnam. He was also a fighter pilot and a test pilot. Gregory attributes his curiosity with air travel to a family friend, Gen. Davis. “I remember listening to him . . . and the other friends were there . . . talk about this adventure that they had been on. And it was clear these weren’t commercial pilots. These were fighter pilots and they talked with their hands, and they talked about tactics, and the enemy, and things of that nature,” Gregory said.

He applied to NASA’s astronaut program in the late 1970s.

Gregory said he shuns the notion that was promulgated early on, that minority and women astronauts were chosen because of race or gender. “Absolutely not,” he told the AFRO, “these people are here because they have worked hard. They deserve to be here.  They have skills.”

The biggest obstacle, he said, was coming to terms with the ever present shadow of death. “You have to accept the fact that you can die. And if you don’t except it, then you wouldn’t go.”

Like many people, Gregory was watching on January 28, 1986 as the Challenger, the same space craft he flew several months earlier, broke apart. “It was a horrific day, for me. The rest of the world looked at it as the loss of the Challenger, I saw it as a loss of friends who were in a vehicle.”

Gregory would fly into space history a second time. On November 22, 1989, aboard Discovery, he became the first Black commander of a space shuttle mission. Each voyage, he says, was enlightening.  “You look at your crewmates and see them floating,” Gregory told the AFRO. “You eat and you can see that you can eat. You brush your teeth, you sleep, you can do all of those things that you may have thought impossible. And then you realize that God didn’t create us to be limited to Earth; that the human body can do things much, much greater than just walk around, or sit, or be constrained. And so you begin to open up your vista to say, well are there any limitations out there? Is there something the human can’t do? And that’s what was intriguing about it.”

Gregory commanded his final mission aboard Atlantis on November 24, 1991.

What may surprise many people is that shuttle astronauts can bring their own food. Gregory’s source was Fincher’s BBQ in Warner Robins, Ga. “They sent a brisket over to Houston. They sliced it, packaged it, dehydrated it; sent it to space. We rehydrated it and ate barbeque up there. Also Snickers. I took Snickers all the time,” he said with a chuckle, “because I just love it, it’s got everything you need in it chocolate, peanuts, and caramel. It is the perfect food group.”


Byron Scott

Special to the AFRO