The 1960s saw the United States in a space race with the Soviet Union. It was losing. The Soviets had already launched the first satellite and sent the first human into space by the beginning of the decade. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy pledged to the nation that the United States would place a man on Mars before the decade was over.
While this challenge was exciting for most Americans, many Black Americans were unhappy that money was being spent on the space race to support civil rights and poor Black communities. To show their superiority, the Soviets also pointed to the high level of racial inequalities in the U.S.
Some began to urge the administration to send a Black man to space in an effort to counter the Soviets. Edward R. Murrow (then Director of the U.S. Information Agency) wrote a memo to President Obama stating, "Why don’t we send the first non-white man into space?"
Edward J. Dwight, Jr., was a 27 year-old Air Force Captain. He was originally from Kansas City and loved flying since a young age. His mother would take him on daily walks to the local airport every day.
Dwight said that he was the only Black officer pilot at almost every base he was stationed. Despite being just 5'4", I received award after award and was as happy as possible. It couldn't have been a better experience.
He received a letter on November 4, 1961 inviting him to participate in the astronaut training program. He was unsure of what to do so he sought advice from his mother.
Dwight said that she was sharing some ideas with him about how inspiration and example could help the race. "My mother wasn't wrong so I went for it."
Dwight accepted the invitation and was sent to California's Aerospace Research Pilot School to begin training. The astronauts chosen would be the most successful trainees.
Dwight stated that he had never been subject to such intense competition. Instructors would put students through tough tests to assess their mental and physical limits. Dwight said, "They'd blow out your eardrums to see how long you would need to recover." "Those were the types of amazing things they did to your body in order to see how far it could stretch before it broke."
Dwight was still in training and received a lot of attention from Black magazines.
Laurens Grant, director and producer of the documentary Black in Space Breaking the Color Barrier stated that "the first classes of astronauts was white male astronauts." "The possibility that a Black man could participate in this was so thrilling and motivating, especially for the Black community."
Dwight's candidacy for astronaut became the cover story in Black magazines like Jet, Ebony, and Sepia. Dwight was also required to appear in the press. Dwight recalls, "I would leave base and give speeches to children that were about six years old," Dwight said. "I thought, 'This really, really cool!
Dwight, however, recalls that Edwards Air Force Base was livid. He said, "The instructors and the classmates, everyone at Edwards Air Force Base were livid!" Dwight recalls that the thought at the time was "We're working so hard every day and this clown is going to give speeches!"
Chuck Yeager was the commander of Edwards' program. Yeager was an icon already, admired for breaking the sound barrier in 47. His word was influential in deciding who would become an astronaut. Dwight says Yeager was not fond of his fame in the press.
Dwight said that Chuck Yeager was against the idea of him giving a speech to anyone. Yeager would take him in for tense discussions, to discourage him from completing the training program.
Dwight believes Yeager wasn't fond of him at the beginning of the training program. Dwight said that he didn't find out about the incident until later. "Yeager called my classmates in and said that these were my fellow students. Then he told me, 'You must isolate him. He shouldn't be able to drink with you. You shouldn't invite him at your parties. We wanted to show these students that we could discourage them."
Dwight has lost the person who told him about Yeager's efforts to isolate him and the rest of his class. Yeager, who died in 2020 and wrote about Dwight's life in his autobiography, also passed away. Yeager addressed their relationship by writing: "Ed Dwight had an average academic background and was a pilot. Although he was not a terrible pilot, he wasn’t particularly talented. He would have done well flying with a group of good pilots in a squadron. He couldn't win the space course against the top military test pilots.
Dwight's description of Yeager's treatment has not been verified by fellow astronauts or trainees, but Woodson Fountain, an engineer from Black, recalls Dwight telling him the story.
Grant stated that it could have been racism or Yeager's resentful of being forced to train someone under Kennedy Administration pressure. Grant also said, "It seemed like a very complicated and fraught relationship between Chuck Yeager, Captain Ed Dwight."
On October 18, 1963, the 14 astronauts selected for Astronaut Group 3 were announced. Ed Dwight wasn't on the list. Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, and Michael Collins were two of the chosen crew members of Apollo 11, the 1969 first moon landing.
Grant stated that NASA doesn't have to reveal who it selects to be astronauts. Grant said that his candidacy remains a mystery.
Dwight resigned as Air Force Captain three years after his rejection. Dwight stated, "I just erased this board." "I drove off that base, and I pointed my vehicle north towards Denver. I didn't look back."
Dwight did not go to space but his candidacy has gained him more respect from the space community. Dwight was made an honorary member by the Air Force in 2020. NASA also named an asteroid in his name in 2021.
Dwight replied, "I'm all about it," when asked if all things space-related are still important to him. Dwight's career has changed to the arts. He is a specialist in the sculpting of historical Black figures that look a bit like him.
"Pioneer Woman," one of his sculptures was sent into space aboard the Orion spacecraft as part of an aEUR test mission, sending artistic works into space to prove the creativity that is possible once humans are allowed to travel.
Mycah Hazel, Radio Diaries, produced this story. This story was edited by Joe Richman and Deborah George. On the Radio Diaries Podcast, you can listen to a longer version and similar stories.