I Was Poised to be the First Black Astronaut. I Never Made it to Space.
This is the story of Ed Dwight Jr., who was invited by his country to train to be the first African-American astronaut. Back in 1963, it was hot news. But the United States never sent Dwight to space. For decades, he has maintained that he was discriminated against during his time at the Aerospace Research Pilot School, a prerequisite to NASA run by the legendary pilot Chuck Yeager.
Dwight is now a prolific artist, building memorials and creating public art honoring African-American history. His footprints cannot be found on the moon. But his fingerprints can be found on sculptures across the country.
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A monument is an ideal. A memorial is a memorial of something that really happened in life. I could have been the first black guy in space. Was that my fate that I’ll be remembered for that, for something that I didn’t do? Think about that one. How the hell do you get famous for something you didn’t do? There rest burdens heavier than have rested on the shoulders of any president since the time of Lincoln. In the ’60s, there was a lot of tension, an incredible amount of tension. In 1959, the first seven astronauts were appointed by Eisenhower, seven guys that become immortal by proclamation only. The way the story goes, the Kennedy White House said, we’ll satisfy our black community by making a black astronaut. One black guy on a Wheaties box. O.K., but how do you make an astronaut? I was born in Kansas City in 1933. I wanted to be an artist. My dad said, “No, no, no, no. You’re going to go to engineering school. You’re going to be an engineer.” All the pilots, the good pilots, the aces, they all grew up on farms. Every one of them. We lived on a farm. And the Fairfax airport was within walking distance. I didn’t know where these airplanes had been when they came and landed. And I didn’t know where the hell they were going when they took off. But it had to be exciting. I did get the flying bug. I was down there every day. I became their mascot. I’d hang out in the maintenance shacks. And I’d hand the guys the tools. And after a while, I said, “Why don’t you just take me up?” [AIRCRAFT ENGINE BUZZING] Immediately, when you can see past the horizon, you say, oh, my god. All of a sudden, your world expands to this bigger and bigger and bigger space. That whole expanse of stuff, you get even more curious about it. Why were we here? And what part do we play? And what, if anything, can we do about it? I was probably 18. And I had a paper route for the white newspaper. And I had a paper route for the black newspaper. On the front page of my black newspaper was a black jet pilot standing on the wing of an F-86 Saber jet. My world about exploded. Oh, my god, they’re letting black folks fly airplanes. I almost stopped throwing papers that minute. I went straight to the Air Force recruiting office. By the time I got to be upper class, I had all these stripes on my arm. I had my own office. I was an officer all the way through the whole thing. And lo and behold, I get this letter, all the Pentagon trapping, all this stuff on it. Direction of the president, opportunity to be an astronaut. So I took it to my boss and he said, “Tear it up. You don’t want any part of that, man. They’re going to make hamburger out of you down there, buddy. Ed, stick with us. You’ve got a career. You’re going to be a general. You have a family here. So leave it alone.” But my curiosity overwhelmed me. So I secretly sent all my information in. And within days, days, not weeks, months, years, I got an assignment to go to Edwards Air Force Base for me to enter experimental test pilot school. I was a Kennedy boy. That’s the term they used, Kennedy boy. I knew full well when I got on the base that it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. It seems like every street at Edwards Air Force Base is named after a dead test pilot. Every time I strapped that airplane on my behind, I don’t know whether I’m coming back. And on top of that, I was told, Chuck Yeager, the guy that was running the whole damn school, had called the students and the instructor staff into the auditorium and said, here’s our plan. Don’t talk to him. Don’t socialize with him. Don’t drink with him. Don’t invite him to your parties. Just ignore him like he doesn’t exist. And in six months, he’ll be gone, because that’ll psychologically break him. He’ll quit. And so they set about doing that. That’s Chuck Yeager. My dad had issues in his work world. Whether you’re a baseball star like he was or whatever you did, I mean, you still suffer the ravages of prejudice. And he would go on these rants. “All white men are the worst people in the world and they’ll stab you in the back.” But my mother had the last word. “Don’t pay any attention to what your dad said. All people are equal.” And those were the last words I heard every day until I was 18 years old. You can teach your brain to help you, or you can teach your brain to destroy you. And your brain will react to what it's been told. Every day of my life, my mother told me how much she loved me and how I could do anything in the universe. I don’t care what it was, you have the ability to do that, as long as you’re prepared for it. That removed any other force coming into my space plane. But if I had all this other trash running around in my head, I wouldn’t be able to do any of that kind of stuff. They were announcing names to go into the second phase of it. And of course, that next level moved you on to NASA, which was the third thing. Just graduated from test pilot school and we were all vying for a spot. So guess who’s not quitting? Captain Ed Dwight. 29-year-old Negro says he is anxious to go into space. He’s Captain Edward Dwight of the Air Force, selected to be an astronaut, the first of his race to be so designated. Captain Dwight and his family got the news at their home at Edwards Air Force Base in California. And of course, that was hot news, I mean, really, really hot news. Place was packed. The press came out from D.C. Cameras were everywhere. All these photographers on me. And they have one cover all the rest of them. Immediately, I was getting 1,500 fan mails a day. And I was on the cover of all these magazines around the world. See, I was being handled out of the White House. So everywhere I went, I was bombarded with it. So there was a lot of unhappy people about this. There’s a black guy that can do this? Oh, god, you’ve got to be kidding me. Kennedy boy, Kennedy boy. All that nonsense, couldn’t give it a parking space in my brain. We were in bioastronautics training at Brooks. They were trying to figure out how far they could take a person and break them. They did everything they could possibly do. They’d stick needles in your head and then introduce these waves. Centrifuge training, a lot of guys couldn't handle that. They’d take you up to 15 g’s. Of course, your tear ducts close and the tears creep over to here. And they’re like bullets when they hit your ears, that thing is so fast. God, I just ate that up. I really enjoyed it. It was just absolutely fabulous. The happy ending of this thing would be going into space. [ROCKET ENGINES BOOMING] O.K., I guess you all know why you’re here today and why we’re here. We’d like to introduce the new group of 14 astronauts who we’ve been in the process of selecting for about the last four months. [APPLAUSE] Was there a Negro boy in the last 30 or so that you brought here for consideration? No, there was not. They were announcing a new group of astronauts and I wasn’t in that group. A month or so later, Kennedy has been assassinated. Are you now in fact completely out of the astronaut program? Why aren’t you an astronaut? Do you feel that what’s happened to you was a setback for civil rights opportunities in this country? I would rather not comment on that. I resigned in ’66, loaded my Volkswagen to the brim and drove off the base. You know, god, I start getting emotional. [CHUCKLES] I mean, that was tough. Next question. [SLOW STRING MUSIC] If I just receded into nothingness, it would have been all well and good with everybody else, because that’s how things are supposed to happen. I would have loved going into space, you know, had this thing all worked out that way. That choice was snatched away from me. So why bother about it, you know? I have to attribute that to some kind of fate. Well, maybe there’s some more work for me to do. Maybe my fate was I had to bring the African-American story to the public venue. [SLOW STRING MUSIC] And so I started building things, making things. 129. I’ve completed 129 memorials since I’ve done this and over 18,000 gallery pieces. A monument is an ideal. But a memorial is a memorial of something that really happened in life. How do you go from slavery to freedom and accomplishment? What happened? Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, Dr. King, B.B. King, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, step by step by step by step. Guion Bluford. First African-American in space.