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‘No One Had Done It Before Him’: The Groundbreaking Stories of Black Astronauts

In documentary The Space Race, the people involved with major progress within NASA talk about their highs and lows.

The Guardian

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Lisa Cortés, Leland Melvin, Ed Dwight, Victor Glover, and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza attend "The Space Race" Special Screening at The Space Center Houston. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

In space, Victor Glover orbited the Earth every 90 minutes, witnessing 16 sunrises and sunsets in a single day. In America, Victor Glover got behind the wheel of his car and knew that, as a Black man, he might be pulled over by police.

“You still have to drive home from work and be worried about a busted tail-light stop,” he recalls of his early years training to be astronaut. “I am the son of a police officer so I knew all those tactics . I’ve been pulled over. I had police officers harass and I would give them my ID and they’d be like, ‘Oh, this is Victor Glover’s kid,’ and then I got treated differently.

“But that’s super frustrating, because how many young people out there that look like me don’t have that to fall back on and are eaten by the system?

Glover, 47, is among many African American astronauts featured in The Space Race, a National Geographic documentary that explores the uneasy convergence between the space race and civil rights movement, and chronicles the first Black pilots, engineers and scientists who served their country in space even as it fell short of equality for them back on Earth.

Running through the film like a golden thread is the story of Ed Dwight who, but for systemic racism, might now be immortalised in textbooks in every school in the country as the first African American in space.

Dwight grew up on a farm in 1930s Kansas within walking distance of an airfield. As a boy, he would go there every day to gaze in awe at the planes and pilots. Most were flying back from hunting trips that left their cabins messy with blood and empty beer cans. Dwight cleaned them up but told the pilots he did not want money; he wanted to fly.

Now 90 and based in Denver, he recalls via Zoom: “I got my first flight when I was about eight years old. I did get the plane bug early but I never thought of myself as being one of those because all those guys were white guys. So I thought that was probably restricted to white guys rather than me being involved.

At college, however, Dwight saw in a newspaper a picture of a downed Black pilot in Korea and realised that there might be opportunities. He applied for training and went on to a successful career in the US air force.

Meanwhile America was racing the Soviet Union to the stars. Its first astronauts, the Mercury Seven, were all white men, an image reinforced by popular science fiction portrayals such as Flash Gordon and Lost in Space. When the Aerospace Research Pilot School was established, President John F Kennedy’s White House urged the air force to select a Black officer.

Dwight alone met the criteria. He was invited to train to be an astronaut at Chuck Yeager’s test pilot programme at Edwards air force base in California’s Mojave Desert. Kennedy called his parents to congratulate them. But Dwight himself had reservations.

He recalls: “I had no interest whatsoever in being an astronaut – the last thing on my bucket list – because I was quite satisfied with where I was. I had a great career flying five different aeroplanes. I was on the wing staff. I had everything going for me at the time.

“But my mom intervened and said, you will go do that because it could help the growth of the race, if you will. I wasn’t very racially conscious at the time but I took her advice and counsel and sent my stuff. Four days later I got a letter back saying meet at Edwards air force base.”

Dwight, who is 5ft 4in, was celebrated on the covers of Black magazines such as Jet and Sepia. Hundreds of people wrote letters hailing him as a hero. But he was given the cold shoulder by officers and fellow pilots. “They were told not to socialise with me and not to drink with me and I’d be gone in a few weeks; I would just resign and quit because I couldn’t do it.

“It was just the opposite. After a period of time my classmates, who had isolated me before, came to the conclusion that ‘Ed Dwight is hooked in with President Kennedy – he’s assigned to Nasa and he might drag me along with him!’ It was like getting a bunch of secret friends towards the tail end of the training .”

The test pilot programme would be made famous by Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff and a 1983 film adaptation directed by Philip Kaufman. But Yeager, the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound, had not been consulted about Dwight joining the programme and did not believe that he had the right stuff.

Dwight continues: “I ended up liking Chuck Yeager at the end of the process, but we were battling probably once a month and sometimes more often than that. He’d call me into his office asking me to quit, and I would tell him I’m not going anywhere. He did a lot of crazy offers, like, they’re trying to kill you and Kennedy wants to kill you, and the battle went on, but it didn’t faze me at all.

“He talked about how superior the white pilots were. There were 17 in our class and I was seventh out of 17 in the class grading when we graduated, and so I threw that back in his face. He just said it doesn’t make any difference about those ratings; you don’t have the experience or the temperament or the swagger to be a test pilot and an astronaut guy. But that didn’t bother me.”

Dwight was among 26 potential astronauts recommended to Nasa by the air force. But he was not among the 14 men selected in October 1963. At a press conference in Houston, a reporter asked: “Was there a Negro boy in the last 30 or so that you brought here for consideration?” Deke Slayton, the director of Nasa’s astronaut office, replied tersely: “No, there was not.” End of press conference.

Dwight’s hopes of becoming an astronaut were effectively extinguished when Kennedy was assassinated the following month. “There was a part of me that felt used, of course, but I couldn’t allow that to stop what was going on. I view it philosophically. This conversation about Blacks in space had to be opened one way or the other.

“I was merely a messenger in the process and there’s no reason for me to be bitter about anything because of what ultimately happened to me. What air force officer goes and meets presidents and senators and congressmen and captains of industry and has their picture in magazines around the world and 1,500 letters a day? I mean, come on, who would be bitter after having that kind of experience?”

Even so, Dwight never made it to space, an experience for which wealthy tourists have paid millions of dollars. Is he not wistful about what might have been? There’s no room in my personality to feel that way. I don’t feel bitter, disappointed or any of those kind of things. I did what I was supposed to do. I was called on to do something and I did it to the best of my energy.

“Life calls you to keep on keepin’ on and so I had to move to a new regime in order to express my desire to make this world a better place. I found out in travelling around and talking to kids that this world needs people – at the time with Ed Dwight and today with Victor – to provide guidance that if you do your best, give it your all and get yourself prepared, there’s not a thing you can’t do. That’s what’s been driving me all this time.”

Dwight left the air force in 1966. For his second act, he earned a master of fine arts in sculpture degree from the University of Denver in 1977. Much of his work as a sculptor 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 onboard the vessel Orion.

“This left brain, right brain thing: very few people have the ability to make that kind of shift and the two disciplines are not that far apart because I used all my engineering in my art. My memorials are so large because I have a background in engineering and construction and building big things. It all worked out for the best.”

Nasa named an asteroid after Dwight and now considers him as a “space pioneer”, blazing a trail for all the Black astronauts that followed. Glover, based in Houston, was 15 when he first met Dwight and regards him as a mentor.

Wearing a blue Nasa flight suit, Glover says via Zoom: “People ask you if you could go back in time and have dinner with any one person, who would it be? I don’t have to postulate or hypothesise. I just saw Ed and [his wife] Barbara this morning and got to give them a hug. That is the number one emotion, that I get to be here to support Ed and celebrate and thank him. I have had opportunities and support because of his effort and because of the awareness of what he went through.”

Born in Pomona, California, Glover joined the navy while still in college, was a test pilot in F-18 fighter jets and flew combat missions in Iraq. He served as pilot and second-in-command on the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience and became the first Black astronaut to live on the International Space Station as part of a long-duration mission.

Over 167 days he carried out four spacewalks, spoke with Vice-President Kamala Harris and delivered a university commencement address. He also, the film reveals, kept a painting of George Floyd – an African American man murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis – in his crew quarters, seeing it up close every morning when he woke up.

He recalls: “I launched amid all of that tension: the turmoil of the pandemic and the physical and economic insecurity of Covid-19 but also the continued physical and economic insecurity of being underresourced, underhoused, underrepresented, undervalued, which unfortunately is what a lot of Black and brown people and women experience.

“I wanted to be aware of those things even while I was on this amazing journey flying millions of miles around in low-Earth orbit because right now I’m wearing this American flag but, when you get to leave the planet, you represent humanity. In order to represent humanity, you have to be in touch with humanity and humaneness and I wanted to have that as a constant reminder. I wanted to be grounded by that.”

During the mission Glover made contact with other African Americans who had been to space including Charles Bolden, who went on to lead Nasa. He was blown away as he saw their names pop up on his screen for the group call. Each was asking how they could help and support him and making clear that he was not alone.

“I needed some help and I needed it from a lot of different areas. I had white colleagues that were allies and showed me love and support, but also this group – Leland Melvin and Livingston Holder and Mae Jemison and Stephanie Wilson and Ed – there’s also a piece that only they can provide and that support was so needed. They also knew what my family needed.”

Glover describes the tension of code switching between his professional and personal lives. He is a military officer and Nasa astronaut – he will pilot the upcoming Artemis II mission that will orbit the moon – but also a Black man in America. “Is it really possible to have a double consciousness? No, but you almost have to think of it that way: there’s a bit of me that I am at home and then there’s a bit of me that I am at work, and the overlap is kind of small.

“I wish that it was different but the way you speak, the way you act, the way you walk, the way you dress is being evaluated and you have to be aware of all of those things. That is something I try to mentor young people about as they’re developing their early professional reputations to know it’s going to grow, it’s going to change over time and there may be a time for you to be a little more into activism and there may be a time for you to pull back and let that professional reputation grow.

The Space Race, streaming on Hulu and Disney+, is co-directed by Lisa Cortés and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza. They were drawn to the subject after learning that the first person of colour to fly in space, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez of Cuba, did so not with Nasa but the Soviet space programme in 1980.

Mendoza recalls from Los Angeles: “That blew my mind. I had never heard any of that story, and so Lisa and I started looking at how did it relate to what was going on in the US at the same time. How could the US lose the so-called race to space in sending the first person of colour when the Soviets didn’t have Black people?

“When we later met Ed Dwight, I loved how he put it: it’s not like the Soviets were picketing on the streets saying, we need a Black astronaut. So what was going on in the US? That really piqued our interest looking at that history.”

Like Méndez, Dwight had been selected by his government for propaganda purposes during the cold war. Mendoza adds: In the case of Ed Dwight, he had to go at it alone. No one had done it before him. There was no community around him.

“What we found in making the film is how, little by little, this community started forming and growing and so now, especially around Victor, Jessica [Watkins], the newer astronauts, you see how they look back at their history and they’re trying to use the wealth of wisdom accumulated by this community to help inform their decisions.

“That’s what’s beautiful. Ed didn’t have the luxury of that but every subsequent generation has had someone else they could go and ask and talk. When you see them coming together, that’s one of the highlights of the film.”

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This post originally appeared on The Guardian and was published February 20, 2024. This article is republished here with permission.

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