Miami Herald

Ed Dwight was to be the first Black astronaut. At 90, he’s finally getting his due

- BY JAKE COYLE Associated Press


Ed Dwight grew up in segregated 1930s Kansas on a farm on the edge of town. An airfield was within walking distance, and, as a boy, he’d often go to marvel at the planes and gawk at the pilots. Most were flying back from hunting trips, and their cabins were messy with blood and empty beers cans on the floor.

“They’d say to me, ‘Hey kid, would you clean my airplane? I’ll give you a dime,’” Dwight, 90, recalls. But when he was 8 or 9, Dwight asked for more than a dime. He wanted to fly.

“My first flight was the most exhilarati­ng thing in the world,” says Dwight, smiling. “There were no streets or stop signs up there. You were free as a bird.”

It would be years before Dwight entertaine­d the idea of himself becoming a pilot. “It was the white man’s domain,” he says. But while in college, he saw in a newspaper, above the fold, an image of a downed Black pilot in Korea.

“I said, ‘Oh my God, they’re letting Black people fly,’” Dwight says. “I went straight to the recruitmen­t office and said, ‘I want to fly.’”

With that decision, Dwight set in motion events that would very nearly lead to him being among the first astronauts. As Dwight progressed through the Air Force, he was handpicked by President John F. Kennedy’s White House to join Chuck Yeager’s test pilot program at Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert.

That fabled astronaut breeding ground, site of “The Right Stuff,” might have turned Dwight into one of the most famous Americans and the first Black man in space. But at Edwards, Dwight was discrimina­ted against even with Kennedy championin­g him. Dwight eventually departed for civilian life and largely receded from history.

But in recent years, Dwight is finally being celebrated. The new National Geographic documentar­y “The Space Race,” which premieres Monday on National Geographic Channel and streams Tuesday on Disney+ and Hulu, chronicles the stories of Black astronauts — and their first pioneer, Dwight.

“When I left, everyone said, ‘Well, that’s over. We got rid of that dude. He’s off the map,’” Dwight said in an interview by Zoom from his home in Denver. “Now it comes back full force as one of these Ididn’t-know


It wasn’t until 1983 that the first African American, Guion Bluford, reached space. But two decades earlier, Dwight found himself at a fulcrum of 20thcentur­y America, where the space race and the struggle for social justice converged.

In “The Space Race,” astronaut Bernard Harris, who in 1995 became the first Black man to walk in space, contemplat­es what a difference it might have made if Dwight had become an astronaut in the tumultuous ’60s.

“Space really allows us to realize the hope that’s within all of us as human beings,” Harris says. “So to see a Black man in space during that period in time, it would have changed things.”

“Ed is so important for everyone who’s followed after, to recognize and embrace the shoulders they stand on,” says Lisa Cortés, who directed the film with Diego Hurtado de Mendoza. “There’s the history we know and the history that’s not had the opportunit­y to be highlighte­d.”

In 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit, it jolted its Cold War rival into action.

As the U.S. began pursuing a space program, political leaders were conscious of the image its astronauts could project of American democracy. The first astronauts, the Mercury Seven, were all male and white.

When the Aerospace Research Pilot School was establishe­d that November, the White House urged the Air Force to select a Black officer.

Only Dwight met the criteria.

That November, Dwight received a letter out of the blue inviting him to train to be an astronaut. Kennedy called his parents to congratula­te them.

Despite reservatio­ns, Dwight joined up. He was celebrated on the covers of

Black magazines like Jet and Sepia. Hundred of letters hailing him as a hero poured in. But in training, he was treated with hostility by officers.

“They were all instructed to give me the cold shoulder,” Dwight says. “Yeager had a meeting with the students and the staff in the auditorium and announced it — that Washington was trying to shove this N-word down our throats.”

Yeager, who died in 2020, maintained Dwight simply wasn’t as good as the other pilots.

Dwight was among the 26 potential astronauts recommende­d to NASA by the Air Force. But in 1963, he wasn’t among the 14 selected. Dwight’s astronaut future took a more drastic turn when Kennedy was assassinat­ed on Nov. 22, 1963.

Kennedy was killed on a Friday. By Monday, Dwight says, he had papers in his mailbox shipping him out to Germany. He quickly met in Washington with U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who had the Pentagon cancel those orders.

Ultimately, Dwight was stationed at Wright-Patterson in Ohio in January of 1964. He graduated from the program and totaled some 9,000 hours of air time, but he never became an astronaut. He left the Air Force in 1966.

Asked whether he was bitter about his experience, Dwight exclaims, “God no!”

“Here you get a little five-foot-four guy who flies airplanes, and the next thing you know this guy is in the White House meeting all these senators and congressme­n, standing in front of all these captains of industry and have them pat me on the back and shake my hand,” Dwight says. “Are you kidding me? What would I be bitter about? That opened the world to me.”

 ?? CHRIS PIZZELLO Invision/AP ?? Former NASA astronaut candidate Ed Dwight poses for a portrait to promote the National Geographic documentar­y film ‘The Space Race’ at the Winter Television Critics Associatio­n Press Tour in Pasadena, California, on Thursday.
CHRIS PIZZELLO Invision/AP Former NASA astronaut candidate Ed Dwight poses for a portrait to promote the National Geographic documentar­y film ‘The Space Race’ at the Winter Television Critics Associatio­n Press Tour in Pasadena, California, on Thursday.

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