BY Etsey Atisu, 9:00am September 18, 2019,

Arnold Tamayo Méndez, the first person of African descent to fly in space on this day in 1980

Arnold Tamayo Mendez was the first man of African heritage to go to space | The Black Astronaut Research Project

The first man to go to space did so in 1961 but it took another 19 years before the first person of African descent did so. This man’s name is Arnold Tamayo Méndez.

Méndez, a Cuban pilot and cosmonaut, also became the first Cuban to fly into space, along with Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Romanenko. They were launched into space aboard Soyuz 38 from Baikonur Cosmodrome on September 18, 1980, at 19:11 UTC.

Born January 29, 1942, in Guantánamo, Cuba, Arnold joined the Cuban Air Force as a pilot in 1959, after the Cuban Revolution had overthrown Fulgencio Batista’s regime and established a new Cuban government led by Fidel Castro.

Arnold went to the Soviet Union in 1961 for training on the MiG-15 and during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, he flew 20 reconnaissance missions.

In March 1978, Arnold earned a selection as a cosmonaut candidate as part of the Soviet Union’s Intercosmos Program. This program allowed guest cosmonauts from Warsaw Pact and other countries to participate in Soviet space missions.

Having successfully completed training, Arnold was set to travel into space aboard the Soyuz 38 with Soviet cosmonaut Yury Romanenko on September 18, 1980. The journey lasted for eight days.

crew in training
Mendez and Romanenko on board the Soyuz 38 | Space Facts

Within these eight days on the trip into space, the Soyuz 38 docked with the Salyut 6 Space Station – a Soviet orbital space station, the eighth flown as part of the Salyut programme.

On the Salyut 6 Space Station, Arnold and Romanenko conducted several scientific experiments and research studies. He returned from space to his post with the Cuban Air Force.

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Photo Credit: Jackie’s Historical Facts

For his heroism and his achievement, in 1982, he was appointed chairman of the Military-Patriotic Educational Society (SEPMI), a military instruction program for Cuban youth. He remained SEPMI’s chairman until 1992.

Through the ranks, he served the Force till he became the Director of the Department of International Affairs for the Cuban Armed Forces. Also, he was the Director of Cuba’s Civil Defense organization.

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Photo Credit: Communist Party of Vietnam

In 1980, he became a member of the Cuban legislature, the National Assembly of People’s Power.

On his return from space in 1980, however, President Fidel Castro awarded Arnold with the first title of Hero of the Republic of Cuba and was also bestowed with the Order of Lenin and the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest decoration in the Soviet Union.

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The spacesuit worn by Mendez on his maiden voyage to space on display at the Museo de la Revolución, Havana, Cuba |

Today, at the age of 77, Arnold is on retirement (the rank of a Brigadier General). Married with two daughters and a son, his space suit is preserved at the Museum of the Revolution in Havana.

Below are some photos of Arnold’s maiden voyage. (Photos by Space Facts)

crew in training
crew in training
crew in training
life onboard
Crew Soyuz 38 onboard Salyut 6

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 18, 2019


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