‘A Space Odyssey’ with the Philadelphia Orchestra honors a historic astronaut

Discover former NASA astronaut Colonel Guion Stewart Bluford Jr.'s life, set to music. (Photo courtesy of the Mann Center.)

If anyone should inspire a sprawling arts and science festival and a tribute played by the Philadelphia Orchestra, it’s former NASA astronaut Colonel Guion Stewart Bluford Jr.

Bluford, a Philly native, graduated from Overbrook Senior High School in 1960 and studied aerospace engineering at Penn State, graduating in 1964. He went on to get his MS and PhD in the same field from the Air Force Institute of Technology (with a minor in laser physics for good measure). A Wharton alum as well, he also went on to earn his MBA from the University of Houston.

Bluford became an Air Force pilot in 1966, flying 144 combat missions and later serving as an instructor pilot, logging more than 5,200 hours of jet flight time (not to mention his FAA commercial-pilot license).

But Earth’s atmosphere wasn’t enough for him, and he became a NASA astronaut in 1979. In 1983, with a weeklong mission aboard the orbiter Challenger, he became the first African American in space; by 1992, over three additional missions, he had logged more than 688 hours in space.

Did you know he’s also a certified scuba diver?

The Mann Center’s New Frontiers: Launch, Explore, Discover community festival, helmed by Mann's festival artistic director Nolan Williams Jr., is happening in partnership with NEWorks Productions. For six months, New Frontiers has presented a wide range of public and classroom programming linking the arts with math and science, drawing inspiration from Bluford’s unparalleled career.

The festival will wrap up with Super Solar Saturday on August 19, a community day at the Mann, featuring performances, activities, and a free screening of Hidden Figures.

The festival’s signature concert, a tribute to Colonel Bluford, is coming up at the Mann on July 25. A Space Odyssey, with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Cristian Măcelaru, offers an all-ages “mixed program of space-themed and space-inspired music.”

The show begins with Richard Strauss and ranges through Haydn’s The Creation, plus themes from the classic John Williams score for E.T.: The Extraterrestrial and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

The performance, including a Mann Center Festival Choir with voices from the Clayton White Singers, Intermezzo, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, Sounds of Joy, and the St. Thomas Chancel Choir, will spotlight Nolan Williams’s Hold Fast to Dreams, a newly commissioned work honoring the Colonel, for orchestra, choir, soloists, and spoken word.

Derrick Pitts, the Franklin Institute’s chief astronomer and planetarium director, will narrate the evening, and Bluford will be honored onstage “for his important contributions to history.”  

A Space Odyssey with the Philadelphia Orchestra, part of the New Frontiers: Launch, Explore, Discover community festival, is coming up at the Mann Center (5201 Parkside Avenue, Philadelphia) at 8pm on Tuesday, July 25. Doors are at 6pm; come early and bring a picnic. Tickets ($15-$55) are available online