The students at West Philadelphia's Guion S. Bluford Elementary School met an out-of-this-world history maker yesterday - Guion S. Bluford.

During his morning visit, the first African-American astronaut to fly through outer space regaled an auditorium full of 5th and 6th graders with a slide show and stories of his four Space Shuttle flights, between 1983 and 1992.

Afterward, led by Principal Authurea Smith, Bluford, who turns 66 on Nov. 22, toured the school that was named for him in 1994 and which he attended more than fifty years ago.

They walked through hallways lined with excited younger children who bounced up and down chanting, "Blu-ford, Blu-ford" while hoisting colorful signs. Some simply welcomed "Guy" back, others asked him questions.

"Dr. Bluford, did you ever go to Pluto or Jupiter or Mars?" read the sign held by Alexis Fielder, 9.

"Dr. Bluford, were you an A+ student?" read the sign made by Sharnice Baker, 9.

Teachers snapped pictures. After shaking his hand, some girls screamed as if they'd just met a rap star.

Bluford, who retired from NASA in 1993, appeared touched and tickled by the hero's welcome. "I want to turn them on to education and make them realize that whatever they dream they can actually achieve," he said, shortly before arriving at the school, on Media Street, near 58th.

Now president of his own aerospace consulting organization in Cleveland, Bluford told the children that when he attended then-Hanna Elementary School, he dreamed of flying airplanes, and excelled in math and science.

He went on to graduate from Overbrook High in 1960, from Penn State with a B.S. degree in aerospace engineering, from the Air Force Institute of Technology with M.S. and Ph.D degrees in aerospace engineering and from the University of Houston with an MBA degree.

Bluford's visit to the school was arranged by the nonprofit Philadelphia Education Fund, which awarded him the Star Alumnus Award last night at its annual EDDY Awards.

The astronaut, who spent 29 years in the Air Force, was more than glad to get up early to spend the morning with his name-sake-school's 590 pupils from kindergarten through 6th grade.

Shirl E. Gilbert II, superintendent of the school district's West Region, where the school is located, reminded the children in the auditorium that just as President-elect Barack Obama is a first, so was Bluford.

"I want you to know that he didn't get there by osmosis. When he was your age," Gilbert said of Bluford, "he was a good student. He listened to his teachers. He did his homework. He made a difference for himself and the people around him because he set the tone. He was the example for all of the other children in the school."

Despite how far he has gone, Bluford leveled with the kids that, "I had to work hard in English and writing. But I hung in there and I stayed with it."

Throughout the talk, Bluford, a husband and father of two grown sons, repeatedly returned to that theme, encouraging the students to never quit, to always work hard.

He also wowed them with pictures of himself and his fellow astronauts floating in the shuttle.

"One of the great things about being in space is you have no gravity. So you can stand on the walls and ceiling," said Bluford, the only living person for whom a Philadelphia public school has been named.

After the assembly ended, it was clear that the students of Bluford Elementary had gained a new role model.

"He's intelligent," said Rashawn Thomas, 11, who liked the space talk but hopes to one day play pro football.

"I'm glad he's back in this neighborhood talking to us about staying in school." *