Home National news Black History Month
Remembering the First Black Man (and Person) in Space

Black History Month
Remembering the First Black Man (and Person) in Space

by PRIDE Newsdesk

Cuban cosmonaut Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez flew to space on September 18, 1980, pictuered here in July 2018.

Most people in the United States can’t tell you who the first person of color to break the space barrier was, but they would likely say it was Guion Bluford or Ronald McNair, who flew into space in 1983 and 1984, respectively, aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in the now-defunct NASA STS program. However, the first person of African heritage in space wasn’t a NASA astronaut at all, he was an Afro-Cuban revolutionary!

Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez is a Cuban military officer, legislator, and former cosmonaut. In 1980, as a member of the crew of Soyuz 38, he became the first Cuban citizen, the first Latin American, the first person of African descent, and the first person from a country in the Western Hemisphere other than the United States to travel into Earth orbit.

Tamayo was born on January 29, 1942, in Baracoa, Guantánamo province, into a humble family of Afro-Cuban descent. Orphaned as an infant, he was adopted at age 1 by Rafael Tamayo and Esperanza Méndez. He began working at age 13 as a shoeshine and vegetable vendor and later worked as a carpenter’s assistant. During the Cuban Revolution he joined the Association of Young Rebels, a group protesting the Batista regime, and later the Revolutionary Work Youth Brigades. After the Cuban Revolution, he entered the Technical Institute “Rebel Army”, completing a course for aviation technicians in December 1960.

Wishing to become a fighter pilot, he went on to join the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces. Between April 1961 and May 1962, Tamayo completed a course in aerial combat with MiG-15s at the Yeysk Higher Air Force School in the Soviet Union, after which he was certified a combat pilot at the age of 19. Later that year, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he flew 20 reconnaissance missions as part of the Playa Girón Brigade of the Cuban Revolutionary Air and Air Defense Force.

In 1967, Tamayo joined the Communist Party of Cuba and spent the next two years serving with Cuban forces in the Vietnam War. In 1975, he was made Chief of Staff of the Santa Clara Aviation Brigade and promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel the following year. Tamayo was selected as part of the Soviet Union’s seventh Intercosmos program on March 1, 1978, and spent the next two and a half years in training in Star City, Russia.

Tamayo, along with Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Romanenko, was launched into space aboard Soyuz 38 from Baikonur Cosmodrome on September 18, 1980. After docking with Salyut 6, Tamayo and Romanenko conducted experiments in an attempt to find what caused space adaptation syndrome (SAS), and perhaps even find a cure, and on the crystallisation of sucrose in microgravity, for the benefit of Cuba’s sugar industry. The SAS experiment involved wearing special adjustable shoes that placed a load on the arch of the foot for six hours a day. After 124 orbits of the Earth (lasting 7 days, 20 hours and 43 minutes), Tamayo and Romanenko landed 180 km (110 mi) from Dzhezkazgan. The landing was risky, as it was at night.

Upon his return to Earth he was decorated with the Hero of the Republic of Cuba medal, the first person to be so honored. In Moscow he received the Order of Lenin and was also named a Hero of the Soviet Union. Tamayo was made Director of the Military Patriotic Educational Society known as Sociedad de Educación Patriótico-Militar “SEPMI” After his promotion to brigadier general, he became Director of International Affairs in the Cuban armed forces.

Since 1980, he has been a Deputy in the Cuban National Assembly, representing his home region of Guantánamo Province. He has been honored by the Cuban Government for being the first Cuban, the first Caribbean, and the first Latin American to go into orbit. He was awarded the titles of Hero of the Republic of Cuba and the Order of Playa Girón. He also is a recipient of the Hero of the Soviet Union award.

Tamayo is married and has two daughters and a son. His space suit is preserved at the Museum of the Revolution in Havana.

Related Posts