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Radio Diaries: The almost astronaut

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In 1961, the U.S. was in a tense space race with the Soviet Union, and the U.S. was losing that race. So President Kennedy pledged to do something the Soviets had not done.

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JOHN F KENNEDY: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

CHANG: Most of the country was excited by Kennedy's vision, but many Black Americans resented the space race because it cost money that might have gone to help Black communities. Then an idea came to the Kennedy administration which would bridge the gap between the civil rights movement and the space race. "Radio Diaries" brings us the story of The Almost Astronaut.

ED DWIGHT: My name is Ed Dwight. While I was in the Air Force, I was the only Black officer pilot just about every base I was stationed. I was a little, bitty guy - only 5 foot, 4 inches tall. But every couple of months I was getting an award for doing something, and I was just happy as could be. I couldn't have a better life. And November 4, 1961, I got this letter asking me if I would consider going to experimental test pilot school for the astronaut training program. I mean, my mind went berserk. I took this letter to my commanders - say, what do you think? And they said, forget it. This whole thing is political. If you think for a minute that they're going to let you succeed at being some Negro astronaut guy, it ain't going to happen. I almost threw the letter away. But my mother got involved (laughter), and she was telling me some things about how the race could be uplifted by example and inspiration. I didn't look at myself as a savior of my race, but my mother was never wrong, so I just went for it. And in four days I was sent down to Edwards Air Force Base to go into this training program.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is the 65-square-mile heart of Edwards Air Force Base. The area surrounding this fine facility promotes the testing of new manned and unmanned aircraft and missiles without endangering the civilian populace.

DWIGHT: Edwards is in the middle of the Mojave Desert. It's arid, very dry and is hard, flat desert.

WOODSON FOUNTAIN: I'm Woodson Fountain, and I was out at Edwards Air Force Base in the early '60s as an engineer. I mean, these are the top-notch fighter pilots that were wanting to become astronauts.

LAURENS GRANT: I'm Laurens Grant. I'm the director of the documentary "Black In Space: Breaking The Color Barrier." The head of the training course is the inimitable icon, Chuck Yeager.

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CHUCK YEAGER: You know, we're turning out an entirely different breed of pilot here at the school.

FOUNTAIN: Chuck Yeager was the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound.

GRANT: He had the swagger, he had the personality and his word held sway on who to select or not select to be an astronaut.

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YEAGER: These guys will be working on programs all the way from the surface of the Earth to space. They'll probably be flying vehicle that are unheard of today.

CHARLES BOLDEN: My name is Charles Bolden. In 2009, I became the first appointed Black administrator of NASA.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This project candidate is preparing for stress.

BOLDEN: We didn't know what it was going to be like to go to space. And so medical people came up with tests, sometimes wild tests.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The weight of eight gravities will thrust upon him as he rides the human centrifuge.

DWIGHT: In the centrifuge training, you get all the rumbling and the noise and the bumping of going on a full-tilt space mission.

BOLDEN: Things like - we call it the vomit comet, going into an airplane that pulls up and then pushes over to create about 20 seconds worth of weightlessness, destined to make almost anybody sick.

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DWIGHT: Those are the kinds of things that they did to your body to see how far they could stretch it before it kind of broke.

I had never faced competition like that. And so to be selected out of this larger class, I've got to be smarter, I've got to be more quick, but I have a lot of confidence in my ability to do things. Against all odds, I was succeeding in the training program.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: These men are astronauts, healthy volunteers who are being trained for the first U.S. spaceflight.

GRANT: Historically, the first classes of astronauts were white, male astronauts. But then "Jet" magazine comes out April 18, 1963. The headline is - Report On First Negro Astronaut Trainee. And there in all of his heroic glamour is Captain Ed Dwight, entering everyone's home on the cover of "Jet" magazine. And that just sets off such a press whirlwind.

DWIGHT: I was the savior of the Black race all of a sudden. I would leave the base and make speeches - little kids that are 6 years old - and I would talk about my childhood.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Keith (ph) asked Captain Dwight, how does one become an astronaut?

DWIGHT: Well, Keith, one must study hard in order to get anywhere in life. And if you study hard, Keith, you, too, can become an astronaut.

I'm kind of an ambassador for the space program. I'm an ambassador for the for the Black community. And I said, this is really, really cool. In the meantime, the instructors, the classmates, everybody at Edwards Air Force Base were livid. We're working our butts off so many days a week and this clown is going and giving speeches. Chuck Yeager hated the whole idea of me making a speech to anybody.

GRANT: You know, Ed Dwight was just seen as, quote-unquote, "Kennedy's boy." Possibly, Chuck Yeager is thinking, well, who is this dude? He's just a pilot. Why is he getting all of this attention?

DWIGHT: I didn't learn about this till later. Colonel Yeager called the students in - and these are my fellow students - and said, you have to isolate him. Don't drink with him. Don't invite him to your parties. The whole idea was to show these white students that we got to discourage him.

FOUNTAIN: So Ed would say these things to me that he was going through, like that Colonel Yeager would call Ed into his office and say, are you ready to quit yet?

DWIGHT: His favorite thing was he had this yellow-lined paper that we always used, and he had a bunch of names on it, written. And he would unfold that and lay it out. And he says, Captain Dwight, I got 150 white pilots here. All 150 of them are better than you could possibly be.

GRANT: This is a excerpt from Chuck Yeager's autobiography. It came out in July, 1985.

(Reading) Ed Dwight was an average pilot with an average academic background. He wasn't a bad pilot, but he wasn't exceptionally talented either. Flying with a good bunch in a squadron, he would probably get by, but he just couldn't compete in the space course against the best of the crop of experienced military test pilots.

It just seems like he wanted to put something down on record from his point of view - like, oh, he was average. He wasn't that great, but I'm not racist because good pilots are just good pilots, whether you're white or Black.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You all know why you're here today and why we're here. We'd like to introduce the new group of 14 astronauts.

GRANT: October 18, 1963.

DWIGHT: This is the day that we were graduating. This is the end of training.

GRANT: They had the big press conference to announce this astronaut class.

DWIGHT: The whole class was in this room, and every one of those guys wanted a place on that astronaut list.

GRANT: And all the men come out onto this dais.

DWIGHT: And the world was waiting with anticipation on this announcement.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: OK. With that, I'll let each individual introduce himself from right to left.

BILL ANDERS: I'm Captain Bill Anders, Kirtland Air Force Base in Mexico.

CHARLES A BASSETT: Captain Charles A. Bassett from Dayton, Ohio.

ALAN BEAN: Lieutenant Alan Bean, Jacksonville, Fla. - hometown Fort Worth, Texas.

BOLDEN: In spite of the fact that there was pressure from the president of the United States to select a Black astronaut, when the list came out, all white. No Ed Dwight.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: OK. We are open to questioning at this time.

GRANT: Clearly, the press was expecting Ed Dwight to be there, but he wasn't selected, and they just played it off like, nope.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Was there a Negro boy in the last 30 or so that you brought here for consideration?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: No, there was not.

(SILENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: OK. I guess we're through, Paul.

GRANT: The deafening silence, to me, speaks volumes. NASA doesn't really have to explain who they select to be astronauts.

BOLDEN: The assumption on my part as a Black man is that he did not make it because of race. That's not a statement of fact. That is a statement of gut feel. You know, we hadn't even integrated schools yet, and you're talking about sending a Black guy to the moon. Give me a break. I don't want him in my school, so why should I put him in my spacecraft?

DWIGHT: I wasn't scared. I wasn't upset. I wasn't anything. I was kind of numb. I had planned on being in this service for 30 years. I was going to be a general in this man's Air Force, and I was on the way to that dream had I not done that astronaut thing. I was on the way.

GRANT: After this press conference, a year later, he would resign.

DWIGHT: I just wiped this astronaut thing off - I erased that board. I said, I resign from the Air Force. And I drove off that base, and I pointed my car north to Denver, and I couldn't look back.

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ANDERS: For all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 have a message that we would like to send to you.

GRANT: Ed Dwight's class would go on, some of them, to become household names, you know, including two who went to the moon, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, and also Bill Anders, who famously - from space - read from the Book of Genesis.

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ANDERS: We are now approaching lunar sunrise...

BOLDEN: Think of what it would have meant for a Black kid in a segregated school to see somebody that looked like him in Apollo 8 as they circle the moon.

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ANDERS: In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void. And darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, let there be light.

BOLDEN: That could have been Ed Dwight.

CHANG: Ed Dwight is 88 now and has since taken up a new career in sculpting. He specializes in lesser-known, Black historical figures - sort of like himself. It took 20 years after Ed Dwight for America to send the first Black man to space. His name is Guy Bluford.

This story was produced by Mycah Hazel and edited by Deborah George, Ben Shapiro and Joe Richman of "Radio Diaries." You can hear more about Ed Dwight on the "Radio Diaries" podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.