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Ed Dwight Was Set to Be the First Black Astronaut. Here’s Why That Never Happened.


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, happening at the same time but on different courses. 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, leaving a plaque that read: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” But what if a black person had landed on the moon with them, uttered the words “one small step for man” and set that plaque in place? What kind of leap for mankind would that have been?

To Charles Bolden, a former astronaut who became the first African-American administrator of NASA in 2009, there is no doubt. “To see an Ed Dwight walking across the platform getting into an Apollo capsule would have been mind-boggling in those days,” he said. “It would’ve had an incredible impact.”

It took two decades after Dwight became an astronaut trainee before a black American would go to space.

Read entire article at NY Times