For My Brother, It Was Rocket Science
His childhood dream of becoming an astronaut led him to launch rockets into space.
Bluford's maiden voyage, aboard Challenger in 1983, took place with a great deal of fanfare. President Ronald Reagan took to calling him by his nickname, saying, "Guy, you are paving the way for many others and making it plain that we are in an era of brotherhood."
It was also the first nighttime shuttle launch. NASA flew in a planeload of prominent African-American politicians, civil rights leaders, educators, aviators and scientists to witness the historic event. They included Congressional Black Caucus members Reps. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.) and William Gray (D-Pa.), Urban League President John Jacob, National Council of Negro Women President Dorothy Height, a delegation of Tuskegee Airmen … and my brother the rocket scientist.
Charles will always remember where he was on Aug. 30, 1983. He was standing in the dark with other dignitaries at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in a three-hour rain delay. Sitting atop 4.4 million pounds of the most explosive fuel known to man, Bluford and six other crewmen also waited for the countdown. Sometime after midnight, it came. Three … two … one … liftoff!
This is how my brother described Challenger's launch that night: "There was this powerful, deafening wall of sound, louder than any home or car-speaker system you could imagine. You felt it as much as you heard it with the ground rumbling. Then there was the brightness of light given off by the burning plumes of rocket fuel and enormous solid-fuel boosters.
"It was so bright, it was almost as if night had turned to day. She started slowly at first, almost like she didn't want to go. But once she was off the pad, she started picking up speed. Then there was another plume of brightness as they dropped the booster tanks and went throttle up. Next thing you know she's gone. It's night again. You can't tell Challenger from any other star in the sky."
My brother was still excited when he told me this over the phone several days later. Though he was a grown man, his voice elevated in youthful exuberance. It took me back to a time when he turned our attic into a spaceship.
Richard T. Watkins is an award-winning broadcast journalist in Washington, D.C.