Meet Frederick Drew Gregory, the first African American to pilot a spacecraft in 1985

Stephen Nartey February 27, 2023
Fredrick Drew Gregory/Photo credit: Wikipedia

He has achieved outstanding feats in the area of space, but when it comes to buzzing about achievements or giving credit to whoever is due, he somehow slips under the radar. Born on January 7, 1941, his father, Francis A. Gregory, made attempts to shield him from the blatant racism that limited his ability to achieve his dreams. An electrical engineer himself, Francis had to recline to teaching in classrooms due to the prejudices of his time, leaving his goals to hang on the wall like his college certificate.

His father’s experience was the last time the Gregorys would renege on exploring their dreams to the last potential. Aspiring to higher heights became a new norm in the family. Fredrick’s uncle, Dr. Charles Richard Drew, became a famous surgeon and broke new ground in blood plasma production and preservation, proving that there was no distinction between the blood samples of a black or white person, according to sources.

It was not surprising when Frederick demonstrated the unwillingness to hold back on who he wanted to be in the future. He developed a love for flying soon after he joined the Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps. He had a chance to explore military aircraft during his periodic visits to the Andrews Air Force base in Maryland, where he nurtured the fantasy of being in one of the jets someday.

When a member of the Thunderbirds, an Air Force aerobatic flying team in the 1950s, told him about an opening at the US Air Force Academy, he saw an opportunity to give his dream a shot. He was however conflicted between applying to the academy or following the family tradition and applying to Amherst College, where his grandfather attended. When his father learned about his son’s dilemma, he intervened by convincing U.S. Representation, Adam Clayton Powell of Harlem, to sponsor his son’s application.

 When Frederick gained admission into the US Air Force Academy in 1960, he was the only black person in his class. Despite the glaring racial slurs cast at him, he rode on it to become one of the high-performing cadets, students, and athletes of his time. He graduated in 1964 in a class that nurtured 25 generals.

When Frederick began his career, he explored advanced aircraft at the disposal of the US armed forces. In the Vietnam War, for instance, he did 550 combat missions during his time there. After his test pilot training, he was placed in several roles where he operated jet fighters and helicopters. By 1977, he grew bored of this role and wanted a more challenging experience, one that transcended test piloting. He applied to NASA with his experience in flying helicopters and was granted employment in 1978, along with Guy Bluford and Ron McNair, becoming one of the first American black astronauts to enter the NASA program.

After successfully going through the required training in 1979, Frederick was certified to serve as a pilot on space shuttle crews. He became the first African American to pilot a space shuttle. After distinguishing himself in various capacities, he was given the opportunity to fly the challenger on the Spacelab 3 mission in April of 1985.  In his career, he spent 455 hours in outer space and led three major space missions from 1985 to 1991.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: March 1, 2023


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