'Black In Space' Explores NASA's Small Steps And Giant Leaps Toward Equality

Mar 1, 2020
Originally published on March 2, 2020 1:42 pm

For many Americans, the first moon landing remains the most memorable moment in the history of manned space travel.

It was a high-water mark in the space race, but as the United States and Soviet Union were rushing to prove their dominance, a lesser known chapter in that battle was taking place: America's effort to send a black man into space.

Black in Space: Breaking the Color Barrier, a new documentary on the Smithsonian Channel, brings light to the groundbreaking moment that almost came to be during the heights of the civil rights movement.

The film centers on the story of Ed Dwight, who in the early 1960s was on his way to becoming the first African American astronaut. In 1962, the Kennedy administration named Dwight, an Air Force pilot at the time, as the first African American astronaut trainee.

The selection was made after an emphatic pitch from broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow. President John F. Kennedy tasked Murrow, appointed as the head of the United States Information Agency, with strengthening the country's image abroad.

As the civil rights movement was gaining ground, the U.S. was still largely segregated. But Murrow's proposal to NASA to put the first man of color in space was his diplomatic appeal to the majority "non-white world," as The New York Times noted:

"Why don't we put the first non-white man in space?" Murrow wrote to NASA's administrator. "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."

In his 2009 memoir, Soaring on the Wings of a Dream, Dwight details his experiences with discrimination from classmates and superiors during the astronaut training program.

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Dwight lost his most important ally, and his dreams to reach space came to an end. He was soon reassigned from astronaut training to unrelated Air Force projects.

"It really is disappointing that he did not fly and was not a part of the Apollo experience," Robert Satcher, a black astronaut who went to space in 2009, tells NPR's All Things Considered. "It would've been fantastic if we saw Ed Dwight walking on the moon."

For years, Dwight's story was largely forgotten. Satcher himself says he didn't know about that chapter of NASA's history until he worked there.

"Although there's a lot to be proud of at NASA, I think it's one of those chapters that is consistent with a lot of other disappointments that African Americans have experienced in this country," he says.

It wasn't until 1983 that Guion Bluford Jr. would become the first African American to travel in space. And nearly three decades after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, a black astronaut, Bernard Anthony Harris Jr., was the first African American to perform a spacewalk in 1995.

Satcher says NASA's early struggles to integrate its force has put American scientific discovery behind.

"If we're gonna be at our best in bringing all the best minds to bear on this incredibly difficult problem, which is deep space exploration, then everybody needs to be included," he says.

"You never know where the next Einstein, genius, whoever, is gonna come from. Maybe we haven't discovered some discovery that we could've made because of denying some kid an opportunity just because of how they look."

Satcher says the pioneering work of astronauts like Bluford and Harris is what inspired him to believe he too could join the ranks of African Americans who made it to space. In 2009, he got that opportunity when he took off on a construction mission aboard the now-retired space shuttle Atlantis.

As part of his work, he repaired a robotic arm operated by another black astronaut, Leland Melvin.

"When I first applied, I had an idea that I could get in because there were other African American astronauts that I saw, and actually got to meet," he says. "We need to have everybody represented so that kid, wherever he is or she is, can look there and say yeah, you know, 'I can do that too.' "

NPR's Andrew Craig and William Troop produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman produced the Web version.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For many Americans, this is the breakthrough moment in space travel that they remember.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEIL ARMSTRONG: That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

MARTIN: Neil Armstrong landing on the moon in 1969 as the U.S. and Russia rushed to prove their superiority in space during the Cold War. Now a new documentary by the Smithsonian Channel shows another important but less known chapter in that competition - the race to put a black man in space. The film is called "Black In Space: Breaking The Color Barrier," and it looks at the history of African-American astronauts from the 1960s to 2020, starting with the very first African American astronaut trainee in the 1960s, a man named Ed Dwight, who actually never made it to space.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ED DWIGHT: Had I succeeded, they wouldn't have no more excuse about how ignorant black people were, how they couldn't learn, how they couldn't accomplish. I was in the right place at the wrong time, you know.

MARTIN: It wasn't until 1983 that an African American astronaut went into space. His name was Guy Bluford. I asked the most recent black astronaut in space, Dr. Robert Satcher, why he thinks Ed Dwight never got the chance.

ROBERT SATCHER: Well, you know, at that time, he was the first African American to be in the test pilot program and as well as to be looked at for entering the Astronaut Corps. And because he was the first - up until that time it had been all, you know, Caucasians that were astronauts - it took extraordinary efforts in order for him to be included. And it really took the intervention of President Kennedy for him to be included. So with Kennedy's assassination back in 1963, basically Ed Dwight's chances for flying ended at that time. He was reassigned from astronaut training to another Air Force base, which of course had nothing to do with astronaut training. So his chances ended with President Kennedy's assassination.

MARTIN: And the Smithsonian documentary kind of makes the case that space travel was kind of one aspect of the civil rights movement. In part, it was a way for the United States to also compete with the Soviets for hearts and minds, right? You joined - you went to space in 2009. By the time you got there, did it still feel like the space travel was not only about technological advancement but also kind of a symbol of American aspiration?

SATCHER: It definitely did. And it, I think, definitely still does. If you look at the statistics, African Americans are still underrepresented in terms of space flights. And that just has to do with over the totality of the existence of the space program. There just haven't been as many opportunities for African Americans. There have been a total of 14 African Americans who flown in space, and that's out of about 350 or 360 Americans who have flown in space. So just from that data alone, African Americans are underrepresented. And I was aware of that when I went there.

There were astronauts who were before me who were mentors, who, you know, educated me when I was being considered. Some of the people that were there at the time were Charlie Bolden, who was the NASA administrator in the Obama administration, and Bernard Harris. I also, of course, met Mae Jemison, who was a inspirational figure for me. And, you know, they, of course, told me about a lot of the history.

MARTIN: Tell us about your mission as an astronaut. What did you go in space to do?

SATCHER: We were a construction mission. So we were near the end of the construction of the International Space Station. The exact mission was STS-129 aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

MARTIN: What do you remember most about that experience?

SATCHER: Probably the spacewalks. I got to ride on the end of the robotic arm. And I flew with another African American astronaut, Leland Melvin, who was operating the robotic arm at the time. The view from that of course is spectacular. I could see, almost in its entirety, the space station and the space shuttle docked to it and the Earth, of course, in the background. So that's just an incredible view.

The other thing that was very special was we were there during the holidays. We were actually there over Thanksgiving. And there was an international crew aboard the space station, including Russians, Europeans and Japanese astronauts. And we had kind of a special Thanksgiving dinner. Everybody kind of broke out whatever foods from their respective countries and whatnot. And we kind of had a Thanksgiving dinner sharing all of that.

MARTIN: And so before we let you go, why do you think this story is important to tell? I mean, there are those who feel that this story of Ed Dwight and what happened subsequently - reasonable people could argue that that's a blight on the program. Your example, Mae Jemison, Guion Bluford, all the other people who have subsequently gone into space, you know, have kind of made their mark. Why do you think it's important to tell this particular story?

SATCHER: Well, I just think there's a stagger that was introduced there because of racism and, you know, the lack of opportunities for African Americans to fully participate. Just as I said, I mean, it's really only 14 African Americans who have flown out of about 356 Americans. If we're going to be at our best and bring all the best minds to bear on this incredibly difficult problem, which is deep space exploration, then everybody needs to be included.

And, you know, when I first applied, I had an idea that I could get in because there were other African Americans astronauts that I saw and actually got to meet. And we need to have everybody represented so that kid, wherever he is or she is, the next, you know, Einstein can look there and say, yeah, you know, I can do that too. This is something that's a possibility for me.

MARTIN: That was former NASA astronaut Dr. Robert Satcher speaking to us from Houston, Texas. Dr. Satcher, thank you so much for talking with us.

SATCHER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: We're talking about the documentary "Black In Space: Breaking The Color Barrier." It was just released by the Smithsonian Channel, and it's available now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.