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 a series of 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 I-didn’t-know stories.”
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 20th Century America, where the space race and the struggle for social justice converged.
In “The Space Race,” astronaut Bernard Harris, who became the first Black man to walk in space in 1995, 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 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 with Bobby Kennedy in Washington, who had the Pentagon cancel those orders.
Ultimately, Dwight was stationed at Wright-Patterson in Ohio in January of 1964. He graduated the program and totaled some 9,000 hours of air time, but never became an astronaut. He left the Air Force in 1966.
Asked if he was bitter about his experience, Dwight exclaims, “God no!”
“Here you get a little 5-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.”
In 1977, he earned his Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture from the University of Denver. Much of his work is of great figures from Black history such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Barack Obama. Several of his sculptures have flown into space, most recently one aboard the vessel Orion. NASA named an asteroid after him.
Dwight is filled with gratitude. His one recommendation is that every congressman and senator be flown on a sub-orbital flight so they can see the Earth from above. Everyone, he thinks, would realize the absurdity of racism from that height.
“I’d advise everybody to go through what I went through, and then they’d have a different view of this country and how sacred it is,” Dwight says. “We’re on this little ball flying around the galaxy.”