The bone-rattling trip to the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere used to require a steady hand, a powerful jet and the precision of an airman ready to dodge enemy fire.
The dangers were immense. You could black out. Or you could merely end up in a flat spin and plummet to Earth without ever getting a good view of what lay beyond it.
It was just the sort of challenge that a chiseled 29-year-old aspiring astronaut named Ed Dwight was after.
In 1962, he piloted an F-104 Starfighter, essentially a chrome javelin. A massive engine took up one end; the other was occupied by the pilot.
As he thundered toward the sun, air roared against the fuselage, and Dwight felt the familiar lurch of passing through the sound barrier. On cue at 80,000 feet, Dwight cut the fuel to the engine.
He became a mere leaf, floating along the thinnest layers of Earth’s air. In front of him spread the curvature of the planet, with the black sea of space overhead.
“The first time you do this it’s like, oh my God, what the hell? Look at this,” recalled Dwight, now 85. “You can actually see this beautiful blue layer that the Earth is encased in. It’s absolutely stunning.”
Dwight only made a handful of flights like this, but all told he spent 9,000 hours in the air. A former altar boy turned airman, he was among the pilots training to become astronauts at the Aerospace Research Pilot School, helmed by Chuck Yeager at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Dwight had the drive, the experience and the solid family backstory of all his peers. Unlike every other pilot in the program, he was Black.
Two grand stories that America tells itself about the 1960s are the civil rights movement and the space race. They are mostly rendered as separate narratives. In the 5-foot-4 figure of Ed Dwight, they came together for a transitory moment.
The Kennedy administration, a supporter of civil rights, became Dwight’s champion. The Black press, eager to mark milestones by lionizing barrier breakers, splashed his face across front pages. Dwight personified American progress at a time when the country was eager to prove that while Russia had beaten us into orbit, the United States was the true superpower. It was a high-stakes contest of Cold War optics.
But the top of the California sky was the closest Dwight would ever get to space. He went from being a prospective astronaut to working on a series of obscure assignments, dealing a major blow to America’s early attempts to integrate the ranks of its space pioneers.
Eight years after Dwight piloted that plane, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out onto the lunar surface. But what if a Black person had landed on the moon with them? What kind of leap for mankind would that have been?
It took two decades after Dwight became an astronaut trainee before a Black American would go to space.
Ed Dwight’s path had started years earlier.
In 1959, while Dwight was a bomber pilot at Travis Air Force Base in California, a young Navy psychologist named Robert Voas was busy losing his car in the Pentagon’s vast parking lot. Voas had joined NASA with the special task of figuring out who the first Americans in space would be — the Mercury Seven as they would later be known. “We were sort of awed by the feeling that you were involved in the selection program for someone like either Columbus or Lindbergh,” he recalled in 2002, for a NASA oral history project.
Before beginning his search, Voas drafted a memo to his supervisor asking whether to focus solely on technical qualifications or to take “public relations” into account. “Were we concerned at all about having a mix of ethnicity?” Voas said. “Were we concerned about whether both men and women should be included?” Voas said he was told “the whole emphasis should be on who could most reliably and effectively fly this vehicle,” but his questions about representation and diversity would dog the newly formed space program for decades.
The idea that early astronauts must first be test pilots, like the hotshots at Edwards, was not a foregone conclusion. Voas imagined a nationwide competition that could include deep-sea divers, arctic explorers or race car drivers. The most important characteristics for the first classes of astronauts headed into the unknown would be the ability to respond coolly if something went wrong and levelheadedness in the face of hostile environments.
But President Dwight D. Eisenhower vetoed the idea of an open call. A career army man, the president decreed the astronauts would come from military backgrounds. That way, they would have not only the desired discipline, outlook and comportment but also a proven ability to cope in psychologically challenging situations — and the security clearances necessary for a program with significant classified aspects.
According to NASA’s chief historian, Bill Barry, this one decision set a course that the space race would follow for years to come. “Once you do that,” he explained, “you bake in all of the stuff that’s already there. For example, that there are no African Americans who are test pilots. There are no women who are test pilots.”
As Tom Wolfe described them in “The Right Stuff,” the first astronauts were “seven patriotic God-fearing small-town Protestant family men with excellent backing on the home front.” These would be America’s celestial heroes. They had camera-ready wives and families and projected the camaraderie of an elite corps. Not surprisingly, those first space soldiers were all white.
On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. The next month, in an address to a joint session of Congress, President John F. Kennedy announced his intention to put Americans on the moon, declaring it necessary “if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny.”
By that time, broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow had become the director of the U.S. Information Agency, in charge of fighting the Cold War on the “hearts and minds” front. Murrow had an epiphany.
In September, he wrote to the administrator of NASA with what was essentially a bid for international diplomacy: “Why don’t we put the first non-white man in space? If your boys were to enroll and train a qualified Negro and then fly him in whatever vehicle is available, we could retell our whole space effort to the whole non-white world, which is most of it.”
With waves of countries emerging from colonial rule, the United States could not maintain credibility with Ghana, India, Indonesia or Nigeria, for instance, if much of America was still segregated.
In summer 1962, Murrow put his proposal for a Black astronaut directly to the president, who passed it along in a memo to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, with the “hope that something might be done.” Johnson’s aide George Reedy dug into the pros and cons. “There can be no doubt of the tremendous value to the United States of having a Negro as an astronaut in a space flight,” Reedy wrote in a confidential memo. However, he added, the administration should “dispose of the concept that NASA can just reach out and grab a Negro and make an astronaut candidate out of him.”
The Navy and Air Force were directed by the White House to scour their ranks for any candidates. The secretary of the Air Force, Eugene M. Zuckert, was by now used to 7 p.m. phone calls asking for “a list of Negro officers by name, above the rank of second lieutenant,” for 6:30 the next morning, he said in an oral history in 1969. The Air Force came back with a surprising answer: A young Black pilot was ready to start training at Edwards.
In Ed Dwight, the White House had found more than Murrow could have hoped for: a charismatic flyer with a cum laude aeronautics degree from Arizona State University, and the required flight time and performance ratings.
As a child, Dwight learned Latin and served as an altar boy at his local Catholic parish. He worked a paper route and delivered food from his parents’ restaurant in Kansas City, Kansas.
Today, at 85, Dwight recalled his early dreams of flying as a full-body memory. In running shoes and a tracksuit, he darts around his sculpture studio, where he has crafted likenesses of jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong.
What he wanted to do was fly.
So Dwight enlisted in the Air Force in 1953. He rose through the ranks, from cadet to second and then first lieutenant. In one evaluation, a lieutenant colonel wrote that Dwight’s “aggressiveness, coupled with his unlimited ability, place him in the outstanding category for a young officer.” Another superior wrote, “I would not hesitate to nominate Lt. Dwight to represent me or the Air Force in dealings with the public.” On top of all that, he looked like a movie star.
Arriving at the astronaut training program at Edwards, Dwight felt as if he had been personally anointed. Kennedy had even called his parents to congratulate them, Dwight said.
They were heady times. Many weeks, Dwight would leave his wife and two children behind Thursday night and take off from Edwards for another leg of a nationwide speaking tour, delivering remarks at Lions Clubs and in elementary schools, where he encouraged Black children to study what today we call STEM subjects. The message was clear: I am proof of the promise of civil rights. If a Black man can train to be an astronaut, we can do anything.
The U.S. Information Agency sent photos of Dwight to newspapers: Dwight racing to his jet, explaining a computer program, contemplating spaceship models with Yeager. Dwight was featured on magazine covers, accepted national awards from the Urban League and was photographed with Charlton Heston. By Dwight’s measure, he was receiving 1,500 fan letters a day. “I had a private secretary,” Dwight told Ebony magazine in 1984. “I was sending out 5,000 press photographs a month, and I made 176 speeches the first year.”
It did not matter that Dwight was still a certificate away from even applying to NASA; he was a celebrity.
His budding fame did not matter to Yeager, though.
From Day 1, Dwight said, Yeager wanted him gone. Yeager had little patience for White House input on military matters, as he explained in his 1985 autobiography, “Yeager.” Dwight said he immediately felt he was not welcome. “He told those guys on the first day, ‘We can get him out of here in six months. We can break him,’ ” Dwight remembered a classmate telling him.
After a weekend of press events, Dwight would fly back to base, where his classmates had been hitting the books to prepare for the week ahead. In addition to speeches, he faced the all-too-typical travails of a Black serviceman of his generation. When the test pilot students traveled for training, waiters refused to serve him. The combination of public appearances and private indignities was weighing on Dwight.
“The disadvantage I had was all the other guys in this program didn’t have that distraction,” Dwight said. “I’ve got to get up the next day and have an exam and deliver the goods and let them know that I’m equal to the other guys who didn’t have to go make 10 speeches that weekend.”
Dwight garnered scrutiny from some fellow students, recalled Robert Tanguy, a classmate of Dwight’s who retired as a major general. “That was always something that they were wondering about,” he said. “Is Ed down here because he’s Black?”
But Tanguy, who flew with Dwight during their training, found nothing unusual about his qualifications. “I thought Ed was a very normal pilot for the program,” Tanguy said. “He was qualified for it. He was an awfully good selection if somebody selected him, because he was a level-headed guy.”
Yeager ultimately graduated him. Despite initial concerns about Dwight’s flying ability and the question of whether astronauts even needed to be pilots, the 30-year-old was now eligible for space. As the commandant wrote, “Dwight hung on and squeezed through. He got his diploma qualifying him to be the nation’s first black astronaut.”
Now it was up to NASA.
In October 1963, the agency held a news conference in Houston to announce the astronauts selected for the next class. The 14 chosen men, including future moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, filed onstage, all crew cuts, dark suits and smart ties. Dwight was not there. He had been one of the pilots recommended by the Air Force, but, out of the 271 total applicants, he was not among the chosen.
A reporter asked Deke Slayton, director of NASA’s astronaut office, “Was there a Negro boy in the last 30 or so that you brought here for consideration?” Slayton leaned into his microphone and answered, “No, there was not.” And with that, the space-bound men filed offstage to pose for publicity photos.
Despite that disappointment, Dwight held out hope for the next class selection, scheduled for 1965. “Washington was able to solve all the problems that were popping up,” he said. “Until Nov. 22, 1963.”
On that day, Dwight and his classmates were at a Boeing plant near Seattle for a mission simulation. Dwight was waiting for his turn in the simulator, about to put on his spacesuit, when the news arrived the training exercise was canceled. President Kennedy had been shot. “My heart fell down into my ankles,” Dwight recalled.
He could feel his dream slipping away. He tried to reinvigorate old Washington contacts. “I was in this trap of no man’s land,” he said. “The team and all the support system I had seemed to have left me hanging out there.”
Within weeks, Dwight’s career at Edwards ended. By January 1964, he was stationed at Wright-Patterson in Ohio. The hotshot so used to circumventing the Air Force hierarchy was now relegated to running experiments on transport planes.
NASA has never given a full explanation for why Dwight did not make the cut. The agency did not then, and does not today, disclose the exact criteria for final astronaut selections.