Cuban researcher-cosmonaut lieutenant-colonel arnaldo tamayo mendez in a simulator at the gagarin co...

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How a Cuban Air Force pilot became the first Black man in space

Tamayo Mendez is Cuba's first and only cosmonaut.

Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

If you Google “the first Black person in space” the immediate results will point you to NASA astronaut Guion Stewart Bluford Jr. In 1983, onboard the space shuttle Challenger, he voyaged to the cosmos.

But while Bluford was the first African American to fly to space, the honor of the first Black person to go actually belongs to Cuban cosmonaut Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, who flew to orbit onboard a Soviet Soyuz 41-years-ago on September 18, 1980. He is also the first Latin American and first Cuban to go to space.

But Méndez’s is a complicated legacy.

While his record-making flight was viewed with pride in Cuba, and officially as an expression of socialist ideals in the Soviet Union, his African heritage was subsumed by his Cuban and proletarian identity in those countries.

As National Air and Space Museum Curator Cathleen Lewis tells Inverse, the choice of Méndez to fly on Soyuz 38 may have had more to do with Cold War politics — and domestic racial prejudices — than any great commitment to racial equality.

“This was not to promote, you know, equality among men,” Lewis says.

Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, the first Black man in space

On September 18, 1980, Méndez and Soviet cosmonaut Yuriy Romanenko flew aboard Soyuz 38 to the Soviet space station Salyut 6. They would spend the next seven days conducting health and science experiments.

Upon his return to Earth, Méndez was lauded by both the Soviets and Cubans, receiving the Hero of the Republic of Cuba medal, and The Order of Lenin from the Soviets, among other recognitions.

“This is a culture like our own, that lends itself to high profile propaganda acts.”

Méndez was one of 14 non-Soviet cosmonauts to fly to space through the Interkosmos program from 1977 through 1988, a program that also included British, Japanese, and French cosmonauts, as well as the first Southeast Asian cosmonaut Phạm Tuân of Vietnam.

As historians Colin Burgess and Bert Vis note in their book on the program Interkosmos, the program was both a diplomatic venture in building relations with allied and other countries and a “high-profile propaganda exercise,” with the Soviets controlling publicity around the program.

“This is a culture like our own, that lends itself to high profile propaganda acts,” Lewis says.

It’s still not clear, Lewis says, who decided to select Méndez for the mission, or why.

Méndez was one of two Cuban Air Force pilots selected as candidates for the Interkosmos program, the other being José López Falcón. Falcón was not of Afro-Cuban heritage. Méndez was.

This is a big deal, Lewis says, because “there is profound racial discrimination in Cuba as there is throughout the world of African chattel slavery in the Western Hemisphere.”

The Cuban soldiers sent to fight in the Angolan civil war beginning in 1976 were disproportionately of Afro-Cuban heritage, Lewis says. It’s possible Castro and the Cuban Airforce asked the Soviets to choose Méndez as a means of painting a better picture of race relations in Cuba — and making a dig at America.

Cuban President Fidel Castro gives a speech in 1974.picture alliance/picture alliance/Getty Images

“People like Fidel Castro would not have been blind to the fact that sending a Black man into orbit before the Americans did was a propaganda coup,” Lewis says.

But curiously, Soviet press accounts at the time made little mention of Afro-Cuban heritage.

“It was very clear that he was being promoted as the first Latin American, their Cuban ally, to go in space,” Lewis says. “They made very little mention of race.”

However, the Soviets were hardly color-blind. In the 1980s in the Soviet Union, you couldn’t be the head of a research institute or academic department if you were Jewish, Lewis says, while Moscow saw riots against African students who had come there to study.

It’s not clear then if the Soviets yielded to requests by Castro — if he made such requests — to include Méndez on Soyuz 38 against some domestic prejudices, if Méndez’s African heritage really didn’t show up on their radar, or if other factors were involved in the decision making.

“All cultures have difficulty perceiving other culture's understanding of race and ethnicity,” Lewis says. “These are all social constructs, and you have to be part of that culture to realize it.”

Who is Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez?

For his part, Méndez — who is still alive in Cuba — attributed his cosmonaut wings, like all his life’s opportunities, to the Cuban revolution.

“I had dreamed of flying since I was a child,” Burgess and Vis quote Méndez as saying. “But before the revolution, all paths into the sky were barred because I was a boy who came from a poor Black family. I had no chance of getting an education.”

Cuban cosmonaut Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez flew to space on September 18, 1980. Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Méndez grew up as a poor orphan in Guantanamo, working as a shoeshine boy and selling vegetables before joining the Association of Young Rebels during the Cuban Revolution. He would go on to attend a technical school, and, after graduation, travel to the Soviet Union to learn to fly the Soviet MiG-15 fighter jet.

By 1978, Méndez was a captain in the Cuban Air Force, and a joint Cuban-Soviet team selected him and Falcón as the two final candidates to be Cuba’s first cosmonaut in the Interkosmos program.

After his final selection and the Soyuz 38 mission, Méndez returned to Cuba and served in high-profile positions, including as an elected member of Cuba’s National Assembly. He would never fly in space again.

“He's distinct because he's one of the few Black men [in Cuba] who is on boards or commissions that are not entertainment and hospitality fields,” Lewis says of Méndez’s post-space career.

Méndez’s legacy — Méndez is celebrated in Cuba as the nation’s first and only cosmonaut, as well as the first Black man to fly to space. But Lewis says it’s not clear if his legacy has done much to change race relations in Cuba — or even if it had a chance of doing so.

The legacy of slavery runs deep, she says, and one man orbiting Earth for seven days is not going to make up for 400 years of racial discrimination.

African American astronaut Guion 'Guy' Bluford while serving as Mission Specialist on the Space Shuttle Challenger's third mission. Interim Archives/Archive Photos/Getty Images

“If you look at the complexion of the leadership of Cuba, you look at what's going on there, they're still deeply divided,” Lewis says.

In the U.S. meanwhile, Méndez’s flight, at the time, was seen as that of a Cuban cosmonaut — not that for a Black and Latin American man.

“It was only really after Bluford, that people went back and said, ‘Oh, well, wait a second. He wasn't really the first Black man because this Cuban was,’” Lewis says.

Since Bluford’s flight, NASA has worked to overcome its racist past, continuing to diversify its astronauts and mission flight teams. But Roscosmos, the successor to the Soviet space program, has never sent another Black cosmonaut to space.

“There will always be an asterisk next to Bluford's name,” when it comes to being the first Black man in space, Lewis says.

“Bluford was followed by other astronauts,” she says. “There was never a follow on to Tamayo Méndez.”