Ed Dwight Was Going to Be the First African American in Space. Until He Wasn’t

The Kennedy administration sought a diverse face to the space program, but for reasons unknown, the pilot was kept from reaching the stars

Ed Dwight in Air Force uniform
Captain Edward J. Dwight, Jr., the first African American selected as a potential astronaut, looks over a model of Titan rockets in November 1963. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

In the early 1960s, U.S. Air Force pilot Ed Dwight was drowning in mail. “I received about 1,500 pieces of mail a week, which were stored in large containers at Edwards Air Force Base. Some of it came to my mother in Kansas City,” Dwight, now 86, recalls. Fans from around the world were writing to congratulate Dwight on becoming the first African American astronaut candidate. “Most of my mail was just addressed to Astronaut Dwight, Kansas City, Kansas.”

The letters, however, were premature. Dwight would never get the opportunity to go to space—despite the publicity and hype—for reasons that remain unclear even to this day.

Dwight was working at the time as a test pilot at Edwards in the Mojave Desert of California, the U.S. Air Force’s premier experimental flight base and a pathway to entering the astronaut corps of NASA. He trained in the Aerospace Research Pilot School, run by aviation icon Chuck Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier. Edwards holds a legendary status, then and now, as the premier flight test facility of the Air Force, where the likes of Gus Grissom and Gordon Cooper, two of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, and Neil Armstrong, selected in the second group of astronauts, trained as test pilots in experimental jets over the vast high desert that often served as an impromptu runway. During his time at Edwards, Dwight flew jets such as the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, a supersonic aircraft capable of soaring into the high atmosphere where the pilot could observe the curvature of the Earth.

“The first time you do this it’s like, ‘Oh my God, what the hell? Look at this,’” Dwight recently told the New York Times. “You can actually see this beautiful blue layer that the Earth is encased in. It’s absolutely stunning.”

Dwight’s participation in the astronaut selection process caught the attention of many, including Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League, who booked speaking tours and interviews for Dwight with black publications across the country, such as Ebony and Jet. As the eyes of America were on the space race, the eyes of Black America were specifically on Dwight.

The national attention led to increased public pressure for Dwight to be selected as a NASA astronaut. The Kennedy administration, which campaigned strongly on civil rights issues, had already taken an active interest in Dwight’s career, seeing his potential as an important symbolic achievement for both the White House and the nation.

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed one orbit of the Earth in his spaceship Vostok 1, becoming the first human in space. The flight captured the imagination of the world, and Edward R. Murrow, a former broadcast journalist who had become Kennedy’s director of the United States Information Agency, came up with an idea to recapture American prestige in the final frontier.

In September of that year, four months after the United States sent its first astronaut into space, Murrow wrote to NASA administrator James Webb: “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.”

Around this time, Kennedy encouraged leaders in all the military branches to work to improve diversity among their officers. When the first group of NASA astronauts were selected in 1959, the nation’s military officer pilots, initially the only people who could apply to be astronauts, included no people of color. But as Murrow advocated for a black astronaut, Dwight was rising to the rank of captain in the Air Force, armed with an aeronautics degree from Arizona State University and enough flying hours to qualify for the flight test school at Edwards.

* * *

Edward Joseph Dwight Jr. was born on September 9, 1933, in Kansas City, Kansas. From a young age he showed a particular interest in art.

“I was drawing and tracing cartoons in newspapers at the age of 2,” Dwight says in an interview. “I had a library card at 4, and soon I was studying the great masters such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. I did my first oil painting at 8.”

And Dwight had another early passion outside of art: airplanes. “I hung around the local hangar and began cleaning out airplanes around 5 or 6 years old,” he says. “I wanted to fly by the time I was around 9 or 10.” Growing up in segregated Kansas, Dwight doubted that he would ever get the chance to pilot an aircraft himself, but then one day he saw a photo of a black pilot who had been shot down in Korea. “He was standing on a wing of a jet, and he was a prisoner of war,” Dwight recalled to the Times, “and I was like, Oh my God, they’re letting black folks fly jets.”

Dwight’s mother, Georgia Baker Dwight, wanted her children to attend the private Catholic high school Bishop Ward in their hometown of Kansas City. But Bishop Ward had an established system of white feeder middle schools, and had no desire to bring in African Americans, which would likely cause existing students to leave.

“At the time, I had been an altar boy since the age of 5. There were no black Catholic high schools in the area,” Dwight says. “My mother wrote first to a church in Cincinnati, and they claimed to have no power over the local church. Then she wrote the Vatican directly, and they ordered the school to integrate.”

Dwight’s admittance to Bishop Ward opened up new opportunities, but the racial prejudices of the late 1940s and early 1950s shaped his experiences at the school. “We integrated the high school without the National Guard,” he says. “They put me in a training class to deal with white people,” where the advice included, “Don’t look a white girl in the eye.”

“There were 850 students on my first day of school,” Dwight says. “Three hundred dropped out soon after I showed up.”

While his artistic skills eventually led to a scholarship offer from the Kansas City Art Institute, Dwight says that his father “sat me down and said you’re going to be an engineer, because they make more money.” After becoming the first African American male to graduate from Bishop Ward in 1951, Dwight completed an associate’s degree in Engineering in 1953 from Kansas City Junior College. That same year he enlisted in the Air Force.

As Dwight progressed steadily in the Air Force, with stints at bases in Texas, Missouri and Arizona, he helped develop technical manuals and train fellow pilots on various aircraft instruments, racking up flight hours all the while. Even so, he was told that he would not be eligible to be a squad leader. “They didn’t want to make a short, black guy squad leader,” he says. “They told me that country boys wouldn’t want to follow me, so I became the number two guy to the squad leader. [But] I wouldn’t allow those white guys to outdo me in anything.”

While in the service, Dwight continued his education, graduating with an aeronautical engineering degree from Arizona State University in 1957. He flew some of the most advanced aircraft of the era and would ultimately accumulate over 9,000 hours of flight time, 2,000 in high-performance jets. His engineering background and extensive training opened the door for him to enter the test pilot school at Edwards.

The end of 1957 was also a pivotal moment in history, as the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 on October 4. Designed as a science experiment, the satellite still scared U.S. leaders about the potential of the Soviets developing advanced nuclear capability. Lyndon B. Johnson, then majority leader of the U.S. Senate, remarked that the Soviets could soon “be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses.”

* * *

Just as the space race launched into full swing, captivating Dwight and millions of other people around the world, America’s self-image as a nation of liberty and opportunity was tarnished by the violence of segregation and Jim Crow. The values that the country wanted to project to the Soviet Union and the rest of the world were contradicted by the realities of poverty and injustice for many African Americans.

The growing intensity of the Civil Rights Movement played a role in the White House wanting their astronauts, perceived as national heroes, to represent the diversity of the country. NASA leaders were no strangers to the disarray gripping the nation. They witnessed discrimination from their jobs at NASA facilities in the South, such as the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, home to rockets such as the giant Saturn V. In 1963, just a few hours’ drive south of Huntsville, the state’s governor, George Wallace, attempted to block two African American students from registering at the University of Alabama.

Ed Dwight speaks before a group of Washington, D.C. school children
Dwight got a hero's welcome from youngsters at Langdon Elementary School, in Washington, D.C., in March 1964. Charles Del Vecchio / The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Kennedy administration knew that a black astronaut would be an inspiring display of opportunity for African Americans across the country. “To see an Ed Dwight walking across the platform getting into an Apollo capsule would have been mind-boggling in those days,” Charles Bolden, the first African American to be NASA administrator, told the New York Times. “It would’ve had an incredible impact.”

At Edwards, however, Dwight was met with prejudice and scorn, as he recounted in his autobiography Soaring on the Wings of a Dream. Yeager, the head of the flight test school, maintained that Dwight was only admitted due to preferential treatment and that he only passed the first portion of the course—in the first year of the school’s existence—with special assistance from instructors.

“From the moment we picked our first class, I was caught in a buzz saw of controversy involving a black student,” Yeager recounts in his own autobiography. “The White House, Congress, and civil rights groups came at me with meat cleavers, and the only way I could save my head was to prove I wasn’t a damned bigot.”

Dwight was one of 26 applicants—the only African American—to the second phase of the course, designed to begin space-related training, but he did not initially make the list of 11 accepted students, according to space historian John Logsdon in an article in The History of Spaceflight Quarterly. Yeager was contacted by the Air Force Chief of Staff, Curtis LeMay, and told that the White House, and attorney general Robert Kennedy in particular, wanted an African American to participate in astronaut training. The number of accepted students was expanded from 11 to 15, and Dwight was included along with three more white pilots.

As Dwight continued through the training, he applied to be a NASA astronaut and was one of 26 people recommended by the Air Force, according to Logsdon. In total, 136 people applied for NASA’s Astronaut Group 3, and 14 were selected in October 1963. Dwight was not one of them.

A frustrated Dwight sent a letter directly to the White House, subverting the military chain of command. The letter was reportedly in response to Gordon Cooper, one of the original Mercury 7, telling reporters that NASA never found a qualified African American to be an astronaut, says Richard Paul, author of We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program.

Yeager’s deputy at Edwards, Thomas McElmurry, later commented that “Dwight was perfectly capable of being a good astronaut,” according to Logsdon. “He would not have been number one, but if it was important enough to this country to have a minority early in space then the logical guy was Dwight. But it wasn’t important enough to somebody in this country at this stage of the game to do it, so they just chose not to do it.”

A month after the announcement of Astronaut Group 3, which included Dwight’s classmate David Scott who would go on to walk on the moon during Apollo 15, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Dwight was reassigned from Edwards and would resign from the Air Force in 1966.

Ed Dwight with his wife, Sue.
Ed Dwight looks at wife, Sue, as she paints. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

“Still unavailable is a complete accounting from the military-space bureaucracy for the reasons of apparent stunting of Dwight’s career in space before it ever actually began,” reads an article from the June 1965 issue of Ebony. “Was Dwight rejected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for additional astronaut training at its big manned spaceflight center in Houston for purely technical reasons? Or did other factors—such as Dwight’s race—enter into the decision to deny him a possible role in NASA’s earth-orbiting Project Gemini or the moon venture, Project Apollo?”

* * *

After the Kennedy assassination, pressure on NASA to fly a black astronaut waned, and the first African American would not fly in space until Guion Bluford flew with the crew of NASA’s eighth space shuttle flight in 1983. In the two decades between Dwight’s NASA application and Bluford’s flight, the space agency had an inconsistent and at times tumultuous relationship with black Americans.

In 1969, Reverend Ralph Abernathy led a demonstration at Kennedy Space Center on the eve of the launch of Apollo 11, destined for the moon. His demonstration centered around the failure of the country to address issues such as racism, poverty and hunger. NASA administrator Thomas O. Paine met Abernathy among the crowds at the space center and said that he wouldn't launch Apollo 11 if he felt that it would solve the issues Abernathy raised.

“If it were possible for us not to push that button and solve the problems you are talking about, we would not push that button,” Paine said.

But despite the economic disparities related to the space program, many African Americans found employment with NASA and rose in the ranks of authority. Diversity efforts were spearheaded by people such as NASA scientist and mathematician Clyde Foster.

“Foster not only helped diversify NASA recruitment by starting the first computer science program at his alma mater Alabama A&M, he also served as the first black mayor in the Jim Crow south,” Paul says. These achievements helped provide opportunities to African Americans such as Bluford, Ron McNair (who died on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986), Frederick Gregory (an astronaut and later NASA deputy administrator), Charles Bolden (astronaut and later NASA administrator), and Mae Jemison (the first African American female astronaut to fly to space, in 1992). They all had their individual struggles to overcome—and they all continued the legacy of Ed Dwight, who took the first steps toward improving diversity in the U.S. space program.

After Dwight retired from the Air Force in 1966, he eventually returned to his true love: art. “I look at life holistically. No matter what you do, be the best at it,” Dwight says. A chance meeting in 1974 with George Brown, state senator and then lieutenant governor of Colorado as well as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, led Dwight to decide to use sculpture to tell the story of African American history, something that he did not study extensively during his time with the Air Force.

“At 42 years old, I didn’t know the details of slavery until George convinced me to tell the story of our people,” Dwight says, who earned his Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture from the University of Denver in 1977. Some of his most well-known sculptures, which are spread out in various locations around the country, include the series “Black Frontier of the American West,” the “Evolution of Jazz,” and a sculpture of President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. (A bust of Duke Ellington sculpted by Dwight resides in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.)

For the past 40 years, Dwight has designed memorials and sculptures all over the world. His works include Underground Railroad memorials in Michigan, Canada and New Jersey. Growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, where one of these memorials stands, stories about figures like Ed Dwight were not told in schools, libraries or museums, even during Black History Month. As Dwight works to preserve the history of African Americans in sculpture, it’s only fitting that his legacy as the first black astronaut candidate be remembered along with the subjects of his work.

The Smithsonian Channel documentary Black in Space: Breaking the Color Barrier chronicles the Cold War race to put the first black astronaut into orbit. Watch it online now or see it on TV on February 24.

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