"I'm glad to see a person who looks like I do go into the universe."
With those words, Mayor Marion Barry stepped to the side of his large mahogany desk yesterday afternoon and gave the key to the city to Air Force Lt. Col. Guion Bluford Jr.
Bluford, the first black astronaut and a member of last month's Challenger space shuttle crew, was in town yesterday for a series of events connected with the Congressional Black Caucus meeting here. He insisted that as a black flier he didn't feel any different in space from anyone else. "I enjoyed the ride up, which was exciting, and the ride down, and a few reflective moments."
But some Washingtonians clearly feel his participation in the shuttle mission was very special. Yesterday, they took time out of busy schedules to demonstrate a collective pride.
"He belongs to all of us and we feel we spent five days in outer space," said Rep. William Clay (D-Mo.), the chairman of the caucus' annual legislative and fund-raising meeting, which continues through tomorrow. Clay presented Bluford with a plaque and guided the astronaut through two question-and-answer sessions, which included 25 students from city schools.
In the afternoon at the District Building, D.C. City Council Chairman David Clarke hastily organized a wine-and-cheese reception in his office. After listening to a resolution officially recognizing Bluford's accomplishments, which has yet to be approved by the council, but is scheduled to come up at its Oct. 4 meeting, Bluford said, "I'm very appreciative of this almost resolution." Clarke gamely added, "Well, you are an astronaut and you move fast."
Last night, the Black Caucus continued its salute with a reception on Capitol Hill, following a day of workshops that covered 19 political and social issues. This year the 21-member caucus added two days of workshops to accommodate the almost 10,000 people who attend parts of the sessions and also to counteract criticism of the annual meeting as a social gathering.
At the reception, only congratulations were heard as Bluford, in a beige three-piece suit, shook about 300 hands. "Can I ask you a quick question? What is it like?" said Gail Williams, a health administrator from Baltimore. Bluford broke into a smile and began, "Can you imagine . . ."
Patiently waiting in the line, Mae Sephus Smith, a District school teacher, finally reached Bluford and pumped his hand saying, "I watched and prayed for you. Now do you feel any different?"
Bluford, 40, an Air Force pilot who grew up in Philadelphia, has been described as an introvert with a formal public style, who does not feel comfortable with the weight of racial symbolism.
Yesterday he was sometimes terse but seemed to enjoy the give and take. When asked about the coincidence of his ascent, the selection of a black woman as Miss America and the possibilities of Jesse Jackson running for president, Bluford laughed. "Those are all loaded questions. We are starting to see more opportunities opening up."
On Jackson, he added, "I don't know what his chances are." Then, asked about his own participation in a black candidate's bid, Bluford added, "It's too early to get involved, I don't know what the platforms are." At this point his remarks were interrupted by a loud "whoa" from Clay, who thought Bluford had said enough. At the noise from the sidelines, Bluford laughed and faked a fall back from the podium.
Bluford discussed the physical feeling of the shuttle flight ("like being in a swimming pool without being able to feel the water"); the isolation of being in space ("We have recommended that we get more news summaries"); Vietnam ("It was pleasant and unpleasant. I wish we would have won"); and space as a defense frontier for the American government. After the discussions, Bluford presented the caucus and the mayor with photographic montages of the shuttle trip. "This is to remind people those opportunities do exist."
Students from Nalle Elementary School and Grimke-Terrell special education school, asking about the "important" parts of the trip, heard their new hero say, "Many times I laid back and said, 'They're paying me for this?' "