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Get to Know Frederick Drew Gregory, The First African American to Pilot a Spacecraft in 1985

Frederick Drew Gregory
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Frederick Drew Gregory


He has accomplished remarkable exploits in space, but when it comes to bragging about accomplishments or crediting those who deserve it, he manages to go beneath the radar. His father, Francis A. Gregory, tried to shield him from the evident bigotry that hampered his capacity to realize his aspirations when he was born on January 7, 1941. Francis, an electrical engineer, was forced to teach in schools due to stereotypes of the time, leaving his dreams to hang on the wall like his college diploma.

His father’s experience was the last time the Gregorys would abandon their pursuit of their aspirations. Striving to greater heights became a new family standard. According to accounts, Fredrick’s uncle, Dr. Charles Richard Drew, became a famous surgeon and broke new ground in blood plasma production and preservation, establishing that there was no difference between blood samples from black and white people.

It was unsurprising that Frederick was hesitant to hold back on who he aspired to be in the future. Soon after joining the Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps, he discovered a passion for flying. On his frequent travels to the Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, he got the opportunity to examine military aircraft and fantasize of flying in one of the planes someday.

When a member of the Thunderbirds, an Air Force aerobatic flying team in the 1950s, told him about a position available at the US Air Force Academy, he saw it as an opportunity to pursue his goal. Yet, he was torn between applying to the academy and following in his grandfather’s footsteps and applying to Amherst College. When his father learned of his son’s predicament, he stepped in and convinced Harlem’s U.S. Representative, Adam Clayton Powell, to sponsor his son’s application.

Frederick was the only black student admitted to the United States Air Force Academy in 1960. Despite the obvious racist slurs hurled at him, he rode them to become one of the most successful cadets, students, and athletes of his generation. In 1964, he graduated with a class that included 25 generals.

As Frederick first started his profession, he looked into the modern aircraft available to the US military. During the Vietnam War, for example, he participated in 550 combat flights. Following his test pilot training, he was sent to a variety of duties in which he flew jet fighters and helicopters.

By 1977, he had become tired with this duty and desired a more difficult experience that went beyond test piloting. With his experience flying helicopters, he applied to NASA and was hired in 1978, along with Guy Bluford and Ron McNair, becoming one of the first American black astronauts.

Frederick was approved to serve as a pilot on space shuttle crews after successfully completing the appropriate training in 1979. He was the first African-American to command a space shuttle. He was offered the opportunity to fly the challenger on the Spacelab 3 mission in April 1985 after demonstrating his abilities in several capacities. From 1985 to 1991, he spent 455 hours in space and oversaw three major space missions.


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