Many people know that James Bagian is the world’s only American astronaut of Armenian descent. The former doctor, engineer, athlete, pilot and current Director of the VA National Center for Patient Safety doesn’t have special ties with Armenia, but his fellow Armenians feel a sense of pride when they hear his last name.
The first time Armenians heard of James Bagian was in 1981. Although the U.S. and the USSR were in a Cold War, the Soviet and American governments discussed the possibility of organizing a joint space shuttle flight as a show of good will. The Soviet astronaut was 29-year old Armenian from Ashtarak, Vladimir Gevorgyan, while the U.S. astronaut was 29-year old James Bagian from Philadelphia. As a response to this, the U.S. “Armenian Observer” made a joke and asked if Gevorgyan and Bagian “were going to speak Armenian in space”.
Unfortunately, this project was not implemented. Despite his qualification as a probe astronaut, the Soviet government did not let Vladimir Gevorgyan go on the space shuttle flight (Gevorgyan died in 2008 at 56 years of age). His fellow Armenian, James Bagian, was more successful He has been a member of the group of U.S. astronauts since 1980 and attracted Armenians’ attention once again when he joined the “Challenger” space shuttle in 1986. But in the end, Bagian did not take part in the space shuttle flight and he was fortunate. As everybody knows, the “Challenger” space shuttle blew up two minutes after launching. The fact that Bagian did not join the “Challenger” reminded many Armenians that it is not right to joke about the misfortune of Armenians.
James Bagian was famous among Armenians and people all over the world thanks to his first space shuttle flight in 1989. It was March 13-18 that year when Bagian flew to space in the “Discovery” space shuttle as an expert in medical-biological research as part of the “Space Shuttle” program. The flight took four days, 23 hours and 38 minutes. As the shuttle flew over Armenia, the astronaut uttered the words “voghchuyn“ (greetings) and “khaghaghutyun” (peace) in Armenian. Those days Armenians were living with the hopes of the liberation of Artsakh and the appearance of their fellow Armenian in space filled them with new spirits. In addition to that, it was during those days when Zori Balayan met with Bagian in the U.S. and said that Bagian had roots tracing back to Artsakh.
James Bagian’s grandfather, Kevork Bagian, was from Karabakh. James’ father, Philip Bagian, was a pilot, captain and had received the “Silver Cross” medal during WWII. His son James (born from his American mother Rose) was born on February 25, 1952 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. James attended the Central High School. He was extremely hard-working with many interests and capabilities. In 1970, he was accepted to the medical college of Philadelphia and practiced sports with his dad at the pilot school. In 1973 James Bagian received his Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Drexel University and worked at the 3M factory in Bristol, Pennsylvania. James continued his education at the Thomas Jefferson University and received his doctorate in medicine in 1977. In 1974-1978 Bagian participated in many contests and received awards and athletic rankings. In 1976-1978 he worked as a mechanical engineer at the U.S. Naval Air Test Center based in Maryland. In 1978 he worked as a flight surgeon and research medical officer at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, while concurrently completing studies at the USAF Flight Surgeons School and USAF School of Aerospace Medicine in San Antonio, Texas. In July 1980 Bagian became a NASA astronaut. Bagian received his Professional Engineers Certification in 1986, and was board-certified in aerospace medicine by the American College of Preventive Medicine in 1987.
James Bagian left NASA in 1995 and is currently involved in professional biomedical research. He is married to Tandi Benson and they have four children. He loves riding bicycles, walking tourism, hiking, as well as swimming, parachuting and repairing cars. Bagian is also a member of the Detroit Science Center’s Board of Trustees.