Kansas City, KS

The Shattered Dreams of the Supposed First Black Astronaut From Kansas City

Jhemmylrut Teng

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Captain Edward Joseph Dwight Jr.(Source: Denver Post)

It could have been one giant leap for equality if only Captain Edward Joseph Dwight Jr. walked on the moon alongside Astronaut Neil Armstrong. But Dwight’s moon mission was jeopardized because of America’s inhumane racial discrimination among African Americans. Especially in the 1960s, where color segregation was still a legal practice.

Early Fascination with Planes

Dwight was born in the racially segregated Kansas City, Kansas, on September 9, 1933. At four, Dwight was seen as a brilliant child, and he was an avid reader and a talented artist. He even built his toy planes from orange crates.

In grade school, Dwight was a newspaper boy, and one day, he saw the news about an African-American pilot Dayton Ragland on the front page of The Call. Dwight was shocked and amazed by the story. Having grown up in a racist city, he could not believe that someone like him became a pilot.

“This is insane. I didn’t even know they let Black pilots get anywhere near airplanes… Where did he get trained? How did he get into the military? How did all this stuff happen right before my nose?” Edward Dwight in KCUR 89.3

According to Dwight, he was not good at math and physics, his passion was in arts. He loved sketching and designing planes. But his father wanted him to become an engineer. He abided by his father’s will and graduated with a degree in Associate of Arts in Engineering.

In 1953, Dwight was enlisted at the U.S. Air Force (USAF) while attending night classes at Arizona State University. He finished his Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering with cum laude honors.

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Captain Dwight enlistment on the U.S. Airforce(Source: New York Times)

Space Race: the U.S. vs. USSR

In the 1960s, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) launched the Space Race. Its origin traced back after World War II.

The two nations’ competition on technological advancement in achieving spaceflight was believed necessary for national security. It was also their way to promote their respective ideologies — the United States’ liberalism and the Soviet Union’s communism.

During the initial stage of the Space Race, USSR had beaten the U.S. by successfully sending Cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the first human to journey the outer space. He managed to complete the Earth’s orbit on April 12, 1961.

A month later, the U.S. sent their first spaceman, Astronaut Alan Shepard, piloted the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule for a 15-minute suborbital flight with no communication glitches.

However, compared to the Soviets, the Americans were skeptical about the government’s overspending to achieve the moon landing. The 1960s was also the era of social unrest in the United States, and several protests were occurring left and right. The civil rights movement was active in fighting to ameliorate poverty, injustice, and inequality of African Americans.

John F. Kennedy’s administration pushed for NASA’s diversity

According to Smithsonian Magazine, after the U.S. sent Shepard to space, John Kennedy’s director of the United States Information Agency, Edward Murrow, wrote to NASA’s administrator James Webb to put a person of color into outer space.

“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.” — Edward Murrow.

Before Murrow’s suggestion to NASA, the agency never selected people of color to be part of astronauts’ elite circle. But Kennedy’s administration encouraged leaders in all the military branches to improve diversity among their officers.

Murrow’s push for a black astronaut inclusion paved the way for Dwight to get captain’s rank in the Air Force. Apart from such an endorsement, Dwight has an aeronautics degree from Arizona State University and completed enough flying hours to qualify for the flight test school at Edwards Air Force Base, a world-class Air Force Test Center and Aerospace Research facility.

During Dwight’s training at Edwards, he flew the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, a supersonic aircraft capable of soaring into the high atmosphere where the pilot could observe the Earth’s curvature. According to his interview in the New York Times, he considered that experience literally out of this world.

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

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Capt. Edward Dwight on the cover of Sepia Magazine in 1963(Source: Twitter/Chasing the moon: The Book)

A Campaign for an African American Hero

Dwight’s participation in the astronaut selection process caught public attention. 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 America’s eyes were on the Space Race, the eyes of Black Americans were specifically on Dwight.

The national attention led to public pressure for the government to choose Dwight to be a NASA astronaut. The Kennedy administration knew that a black astronaut would be an inspiring display of opportunity for African Americans across the country. Also, provides an excellent image to the world that the U.S. is the epitome of liberty. Besides, the Kennedy government champions civil rights programs and proposed legislation that would lead the nation to end discrimination against African Americans.

Therefore, Dwight’s possible inclusion for the space expedition projected hope, inspiration, and heroism for the Black community. Unfortunately, Dwight’s rise to fame was short-lived.

Shattered Dreams and a Broken Heart

In his autobiography, Soaring on the Wings of Dreams, Dwight narrated all the hate, racial discrimination, prejudices, and scorns he experienced during the astronaut training.

Chuck Yeager, head of the test flight school, admitted in his book that he only accepted Dwight because of “preferential treatment” and “special assistance” from his instructors and the White House. But he was not qualified to be a NASA astronaut.

“From the moment we picked our first class, I was caught in a buzz saw of controversy involving a black student… 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.” Chuck Yeager.

In October 1963, out of 136 people who applied for Astronaut Group 3, NASA only picked 14 White men, and Dwight, the sole African American, was not included.

A frustrated Dwight sent a letter directly to the White House, subverting the military chain of command. His message was a response to Gordon Cooper, one of the original Mercury 7, telling reporters that NASA never found a qualified African American to be an astronaut.

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News story about Captain Dwight not being selected by NASA | Image credit: newspapers.com(Source: Newspapers.com)

However, Thomas McElmurry, deputy of Yeager in the flight test center, thought otherwise. He believed Dwight was qualified just like those other candidates for the moon mission. Dwight was merely a victim of racial discrimination because America was not yet ready to see a Black man go to space.

“Dwight was perfectly capable of being a good astronaut… 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.” — Thomas McElmurry.

A month after the announcement of NASA’s Astronaut Group 3, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. When Kennedy died, Dwight’s space dream died as well.

In his interview with the Guardian, Dwight narrated that he resigned from the Air Force in 1966. The reasons were discrimination, politics, and bureaucracy.

He then returned to his first love — the arts. He excelled as an artist with all his unique masterpieces displayed in several memorials across the United States. He also became a historian and an author.

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Captain Edward Joseph Dwight Jr. as an artist(Source: Denver Post)

Epilogue

When the United States landed on the lunar surface on June 20, 1969, it projected America’s dominion in the world once again. Since then, even the Soviet Union stopped competing in the Space Race. However, it was disheartening to learn that such a milestone for the Americans still lies injustice among African Americans in the story of Captain Edward Joseph Dwight Jr.

According to Charles Bolden, the first African American to be NASA’s administrator, it would have been a powerful moment if Dwight made it to space and to the moon.

“To see an Ed Dwight walking across the platform getting into an Apollo capsule would have been mind-boggling in those days… It would’ve had an incredible impact.” — Charles Bolden.

When Astronaut Neil Armstrong marked his footstep on the moon, he said, “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

But imagine if Edward Dwight was part of the moon mission, then it wouldn’t be a mere giant leap for humankind, but also a feat for racial equality.

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I am a PR officer and a professional journalist with a master's degree in international development. I write history, geopolitics, food, and culture. Since I am a member of the API community, I make sure to highlight our stories to promote diversity and create awareness for cultural understanding.

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