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Ed Dwight Was Set to Be the First Black Astronaut. Here’s Why That Never Happened.
For a brief moment, the civil rights movement and the space race came together.
By Walter J. Brown Media Archives, University Of Georgia Libraries
By Emily Ludolph
July 16, 2019
The bone-rattling trip to the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere used to require a steady hand, a powerful jet and the precision of an airman ready to dodge enemy fire.
The dangers were immense. You could black out. Gravitational force could pull blood from your eyes, rendering you sightless. Or you could merely end up in a flat spin and plummet to Earth without ever getting a good view of what lay beyond it.
It was just the sort of challenge that a chiseled 29-year-old aspiring astronaut named Ed Dwight was after.
In 1962, he piloted an F-104 Starfighter, essentially a chrome javelin, with wings so small as to seem gestural, designed to go very fast and very high, ideally in a straight line. A massive engine took up one end; the other was occupied by the pilot.
As he thundered toward the sun, air roared against the fuselage and Dwight felt the familiar lurch of passing through the sound barrier. On cue at 80,000 feet, as the bruised edge of the atmosphere drew closer, Dwight cut the fuel to the engine.
He became a mere leaf, floating along the thinnest layers of Earth’s air. In front of him spread the curvature of the planet, with the black sea of space overhead.
“The first time you do this it’s like, Oh my God, what the hell? Look at this,” recalled Dwight, now 85. “You can actually see this beautiful blue layer that the Earth is encased in. It’s absolutely stunning.”
Dwight only made a handful of flights like this, but all told he spent 9,000 hours in the air. A former altar boy turned airman, he was among the pilots training to become astronauts at the Aerospace Research Pilot School, helmed by Chuck Yeager at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Dwight had the drive, the experience and the solid family back story of all his peers. Unlike every other pilot in the program, he was black.
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.
Ed Dwight’s path had started years earlier.
In 1959, while Dwight was a bomber pilot at Travis Air Force Base in California, a young Navy psychologist named Robert Voas was busy losing his car in the Pentagon’s vast parking lot. Voas had joined NASA with the special task of figuring out who the first Americans in space would be — the Mercury Seven as they would later be known. “We were sort of awed by the feeling that you were involved in the selection program for someone like either Columbus or Lindbergh,” he recalled in 2002, for a NASA oral history project. “They were going to come to not only represent the program, but often that they’d possibly be American heroes.”
Before beginning his search, Voas drafted a memo to his supervisor asking whether to focus solely on technical qualifications or to take “public relations” into account. “Were we concerned at all about having a mix of ethnicity?” Voas said. “Were we concerned about whether both men and women should be included?” Voas said he was told that “the whole emphasis should be on who could most reliably and effectively fly this vehicle,” but his questions about representation and diversity would dog the newly formed space program for decades.
The idea that early astronauts must first be test pilots, like the hotshots at Edwards, was not a foregone conclusion. Voas imagined a nationwide competition that could include deep-sea divers, arctic explorers or racecar drivers. The most important characteristics for the first classes of astronauts headed into the unknown would be the ability to respond coolly if something went wrong and levelheadedness in the face of hostile environments.

Riding a rocket had little in common with flying a plane, aside from being airborne. “The basic thing you have to understand,” Dwight explained recently, “is everything that happens on that spaceship, from the time you crawl into that seat to the time it touches down, is controlled from the ground. There’s no one thing that makes a good astronaut. I don’t know any person with determination and will that can’t go to space.”
Even Yeager, the aerospace training program’s future commandant, insisted in 1959, “I’ve been a pilot all my life, and there won’t be any flying to do in Project Mercury.”
But President Dwight D. Eisenhower vetoed the idea of an open call. A career army man himself, the president decreed the astronauts would come from military backgrounds. That way, they would have not only the desired discipline, outlook and comportment, but also a proven ability to cope in psychologically challenging situations — and the security clearances necessary for a program with significant classified aspects. With the United States deep into the Cold War, candidates would be the high-profile proxies in a global game of influence.
According to NASA’s chief historian, Bill Barry, this one decision set a course that the space race would follow for years to come. “Once you do that,” he explained, “you bake in all of the stuff that’s already there. For example, that there are no African-Americans who are test pilots. There are no women who are test pilots.”
As Tom Wolfe described them in “The Right Stuff,” the first astronauts were “seven patriotic God-fearing small-town Protestant family men with excellent backing on the home front.” These would be America’s celestial heroes. They had camera-ready wives and families, and projected the camaraderie of an elite corps. Not surprisingly, those first space soldiers were all white.
On April 12, 1961, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. The next month, in an address to a joint session of Congress, President John F. Kennedy announced his intention to put Americans on the moon, declaring it necessary “if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny.”
By that time, the broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow had become the director of the United States Information Agency, in charge of fighting the Cold War on the “hearts and minds” front. Watching the handsome Gagarin barnstorm Brazil, Japan, Liberia and other countries — and the screaming crowds that turned out for him — Murrow had an epiphany.
In September, he wrote to the administrator of NASA with what was essentially a bid for international diplomacy: “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.”
With waves of countries emerging from colonial rule, the United States could not maintain credibility with Ghana, India, Indonesia or Nigeria, for instance, if much of America was still segregated.
“The map’s being divided into who’s pro-Soviet and who’s pro-U.S.A., and our astronauts are good-will ambassadors,” said the historian Douglas Brinkley, who wrote “American Moonshot,” which was published this year. “We’re touting them around to show people the greatness of the American experiment. You put a person of color in space and it’ll show how noble our democracy is.”
In summer 1962, Murrow put his proposal for a black astronaut directly to the president, who passed it along in a memo to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, with the “hope that something might be done.” Johnson’s aide George Reedy dug into the pros and cons. “There can be no doubt of the tremendous value to the United States of having a Negro as an astronaut in a space flight,” Reedy wrote in a confidential memo. However, he added, the administration should “dispose of the concept that NASA can just reach out and grab a Negro and make an astronaut candidate out of him.”
Doing so risked any number of public relations disasters. The man might flunk out, making it look as though he had been set up for failure. He might die — a significant risk — leading to the accusation that African-Americans were being treated as expendable. The worst-case scenario, Reedy wrote, would be if the public caught on to an “artificial selection,” which would undermine the whole endeavor.
And there was a big problem. As Reedy summarized NASA’s position, no African-American applicants had even come close to moving through the agency’s selection process. Kennedy’s executive order in 1961 encouraging the government to take “affirmative action” to promote equal employment opportunities was too recent to have affected the pool of available black pilots. A solution was, Reedy explained, “beyond the scope of NASA activities and is basically a problem for the whole nation.”
Even so, the Navy and Air Force were directed by the White House to scour their ranks for any candidates. The secretary of the Air Force, Eugene M. Zuckert, was by now used to 7 p.m. phone calls asking for “a list of Negro officers by name, above the rank of second lieutenant,” for 6:30 the next morning, he said in an oral history in 1969. The Air Force came back with a surprising answer: A young black pilot was ready to start training at Edwards.
In Ed Dwight, the White House had found more than Murrow could have hoped for: a charismatic flier with a cum laude aeronautics degree from Arizona State University, and the required flight time and performance ratings.
As a child, Dwight learned Latin and served as an altar boy at his local Catholic parish. He worked a paper route and delivered food from his parents’ restaurant in Kansas City, Kan. Sometimes he earned nickels cleaning private planes at the nearby airport after their white owners returned from hunting trips in Wyoming. “From the time I was a little itty-bitty kid, I was going to the airport every day,” he remembered. “I began to study all the airplanes, and I’d draw all the airplanes. This was my private fantasy.”
Today, at 85, Dwight recalled his early dreams of flying as a full-body memory, stretching up from his toes to the soft pads of his fingers to illustrate the angles of flight and descent. In running shoes and a tracksuit, he darts around his sculpture studio, where he has crafted likenesses of jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. He is especially spirited when talking about his childhood.
Dwight and his older sister integrated the local Catholic high school, though not before a blacks-only shower was built and Dwight was lectured on not looking at white girls. He went out for the football team and boxed. It seemed the only thing that the diminutive teenager did not excel at was basketball, but he still played.

“He just charmed everybody,” recalled Dwight’s youngest sister, Liz Chow. “Everybody loved Ed Dwight. He had a kind of a bubbly effervescent type of personality. He walked into a room and it just lit up. I often wondered whether or not there was someone above him, maybe a guardian angel, steering him, because everything he attempted to do he succeeded at.”
What he wanted to do was fly. “But this was a white man’s world,” Dwight recalled of his formative years in the early 1950s. “Kansas was segregated at the time. And I never thought for a minute that I would really fly an airplane. This was crazy.”
But then one day on the front page of a newspaper he saw “an African-American pilot from Kansas City, my hometown, that had been shot down in Korea,” he explained, adding, “He was standing on a wing of a jet, and he was a prisoner of war, and I was like, Oh my God, they’re letting black folks fly jets.”
So Dwight enlisted in the Air Force in 1953. He rose through the ranks, from cadet to second and then first lieutenant. He leaped into procedural vacuums, streamlining operations and preparing manuals. When instructors were absent, he ran instrument training classes. He administered examinations to his fellow pilots and flew extensively in his off-duty hours. He completed correspondence courses in electronic engineering and calculus. In one evaluation, a lieutenant colonel wrote that Dwight’s “aggressiveness, coupled with his unlimited ability, place him in the outstanding category for a young officer.” Another superior wrote, “I would not hesitate to nominate Lt. Dwight to represent me or the Air Force in dealings with the public.” On top of all that, he looked like a movie star.
He also had the superhuman confidence of a true fighter jock. Dwight wrote in his 2009 self-published memoir, “Soaring on the Wings of a Dream”: “Fighter pilots are universally Type-A personalities, independent, aggressive, daring, risk-oriented, total control freaks, and the real good ones are usually arrogant asses. Exercising absolute control over a complex, multimillion-dollar, high-speed machine that requires the ultimate in training, superior intellectual input, and psychomotor reaction requires such a personality. You did not get ‘into’ a fighter, you strapped it onto your ass and it became an extension of your physical body.”
Arriving at the astronaut training program at Edwards, Dwight felt as if he had been personally anointed. President Kennedy had even called his parents to congratulate them, Dwight said.
They were heady times. Many weeks, Dwight would leave his wife and two children behind on Thursday night and take off from Edwards for another leg of a nationwide speaking tour, delivering remarks at Lions Clubs and in elementary schools, where he encouraged black children to study what today we call STEM subjects. The message was clear: I am proof of the promise of civil rights. If a black man can train to be an astronaut, we can do anything.
“Negro Astronaut Aiming for Moon,” The New York Times proclaimed. “Kansas Native in Line as First Sepia Astronaut,” The Indianapolis Recorder announced. The United States Information Agency sent photos of Dwight to newspapers: Dwight racing to his jet, explaining a computer program, contemplating spaceship models with Yeager. Dwight was featured on magazine covers, accepted national awards from the Urban League and was photographed with Charlton Heston. By Dwight’s measure, he was receiving 1,500 fan letters a day. “I had a private secretary,” Dwight told Ebony magazine in 1984. “I was sending out 5,000 press photographs a month, and I made 176 speeches the first year.”
“He was as popular in the African-American press as John Glenn was in the white press,” said Richard Paul, who with Steven Moss wrote the 2015 book “We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program.”
“He really is everywhere — NASA doesn’t put the brakes on it because it’s great publicity,” Moss added. “To be an astronaut in 1962, there was nothing bigger than that. Even if you were three steps away. A mathematician who becomes a mayor is an amazing thing. A technician who becomes the first black elected City Council person in Florida is a big deal. But it’s not an astronaut in 1962.”
It did not matter that Dwight was still a certificate away from even applying to NASA; he was a celebrity.
Dwight receiving a citation from the Los Angeles Urban League. On the right is Chuck Yeager, then an Air Force colonel and the commandant at the Aerospace Research Pilots School. July 1963.
His budding fame did not matter to Yeager, though. A colonel when he and Dwight met, Yeager had been a legend in the military since World War II. He was born in Myra, W.Va., a tiny town on the Mud River, deep in Appalachia. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1941, at age 18, and started as a flight mechanic. By the end of the war, in which he once downed five enemy planes in a single day, he was a 22-year-old captain with a battery of medals on his chest, a hero.
Yeager went out to the California desert in 1947, when the base, then called Muroc, was barely more than a dry lake bed and a smattering of improvised barracks. There, that same year, among the fabled pilots of the early jet-testing programs, he broke the sound barrier and became the “fastest man alive.” By 1962, the year he became the school commandant, Yeager was the quintessential military flier, and as much a part of Edwards as the airstrip.
From Day 1, Dwight said, Yeager wanted him gone. Yeager had little patience for White House input on military matters, as he explained in his 1985 autobiography, “Yeager.” Dwight said he immediately felt he was not welcome, that he was not of the group. “He told those guys on the first day, ‘We can get him out of here in six months. We can break him,’” Dwight remembered a classmate telling him.
As Tom Wolfe described in “The Right Stuff”: “Every week, it seemed like, a detachment of Civil Rights Division lawyers would turn up from Washington, from the Justice Department, which was headed by the president’s brother, Bobby. The lawyers squinted in the desert sunlight and asked a great many questions about the progress and treatment of Ed Dwight and took notes.”
“There were days when ARPS seemed like the Ed Dwight case with a few classrooms and some military hardware appended,” Wolfe added, referring to the Aerospace Research Pilot School.
After a weekend of press events, Dwight would fly back to base, where his classmates had been hitting the books to prepare for the week ahead. In addition to speeches, he faced the all-too-typical travails of a black serviceman of his generation. When the test pilot students traveled for training, waiters refused to serve him. Cars left without him, and hotel rooms were mysteriously not booked. The combination of public appearances and private indignities was weighing on Dwight.
“The disadvantage I had was all the other guys in this program didn’t have that distraction,” Dwight said. “I’ve got to get up the next day and have an exam and deliver the goods and let them know that I’m equal to the other guys who didn’t have to go make 10 speeches that weekend.”
But the only thing waiting for Dwight on Monday was Yeager. “Every week, right on the dot,” Dwight recalled, “he’d call me into his office and say, ‘Are you ready to quit? This is too much for you and you’re going to kill yourself, boy.’ Calling me a boy and I’m an officer in the Air Force.”
Yeager denies Dwight’s account of his treatment: He said he did not tell anybody that he would get Dwight out of the program, did not have weekly meetings with him and did not call him “boy.” But he was no champion of Dwight and did question his ability. “Isn’t it great that Ed Dwight found his true calling and became an accomplished sculptor?” Yeager said in an email.
Dwight, though, felt his treatment was so unfair that he later took bias charges to higher-ups. Yeager was incensed. In his autobiography, he wrote: “The Air Force counselor, their chief lawyer, flew to Edwards from the Pentagon to personally take charge of the case. Man, I was hot. I told that lawyer: ‘You do have a case of discrimination here. The White House discriminated by forcing us to take an unqualified guy. And we would have discriminated by passing him because he was black.’”
Dwight garnered scrutiny from some fellow students, recalled Robert Tanguy, a classmate of Dwight’s who retired as a major general. “That was always something that they were wondering about,” he said. “Is Ed down here because he’s black?”
But Tanguy, who flew with Dwight during their training, found nothing unusual about his qualifications. “I thought Ed was a very normal pilot for the program,” Tanguy said. “He was qualified for it. He was an awfully good selection if somebody selected him, because he was a level-headed guy.”
Woody Fountain, who started at Edwards Air Force Base as an engineer around the same time Dwight arrived, played squash with Dwight and saw him at weekend cocktail parties. “We all wanted to relax since there were so few of us black folks out there,” Fountain said. “Ed was right there in the middle of the parties, having a good time. An absolutely funny guy to be around.” Fountain added, ”I was never cognizant of what he was going through.”
Amid the stress of his speaking obligations and his training, Dwight was also having trouble in his marriage. At the urging of the Air Force, he had brokered an agreement with his wife, Sue Lillian, from whom he was estranged by this time. She joined him and their two children at Edwards, but their relationship grew even more tense, particularly under the scrutiny of the news media.
Life on the base was an alienating experience, and the usual pilots-and-wives camaraderie at the officers club or backyard barbecues was not a real outlet for the Dwights. He found solace in almost daily calls with his mother. “She took an inordinate amount of time telling me how incredible I was, how I could do anything in the universe I wanted to do and that I was loved,” Dwight recalled.
Dwight also turned to his powerful friends. “I spent hours in the Pentagon, running around there doing lobbying and talking to anybody who would talk to me,” he said. Yeager and other superior officers noticed, with rancor.
Dwight was unfazed. He had a friend in the president, and he was going to be an astronaut.
“I wanted to be on the cover of Life magazine,” Dwight said. “And people were fighting when the issue came out. They were beating each other up to get the magazine.”
He added, “The news guys couldn’t put enough Life magazines on the shelf to supply all these people. That was my deal. I would think about walking down Broadway, and every newsstand, man, and every magazine on it, there’d be no magazines but me.”
Yeager ultimately graduated him. Despite initial concerns about Dwight’s flying ability, and the question of whether astronauts even needed to be pilots, the 30-year-old was now eligible for space. As the commandant wrote, “Dwight hung on and squeezed through. He got his diploma qualifying him to be the nation’s first black astronaut.”
Now it was up to NASA.
In October 1963, the agency held a news conference in Houston to announce the astronauts selected for the next class. The 14 chosen men, including the future moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, filed onstage, all crew cuts, dark suits and smart ties. Dwight was not there. He had been one of the pilots recommended by the Air Force, but, out of the 271 total applicants, he was not among the chosen.
A reporter asked Deke Slayton, the director of NASA’s astronaut office, “Was there a Negro boy in the last 30 or so that you brought here for consideration?” Slayton leaned into his microphone and answered flatly, “No, there was not.” And with that, the space-bound men filed offstage to pose for publicity photos.
Despite that disappointment, Dwight was confident that someone was still watching over his career and held out hope for the next class selection, scheduled for 1965. “Washington was able to solve all the problems that were popping up,” he said. “Until November 22, 1963.”
On that day, Dwight and his classmates were at a Boeing plant near Seattle for a mission simulation. Dwight was waiting for his turn in the simulator, about to put on his spacesuit, when the news arrived that the training exercise was canceled. President Kennedy had been shot. “My heart fell down into my ankles,” Dwight recalled. The pilots trooped into the executive dining room to discuss the news. Dwight, who as a young man had been inspired by Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage,” ate quietly by himself.
The hand on Dwight’s shoulder also seemed to have vanished. He could feel his dream slipping away. He tried to reinvigorate old Washington contacts. “I was in this trap of no man’s land,” he said. “The team and all the support system I had seemed to have left me hanging out there.”
Within weeks, Dwight’s career at Edwards ended. By January 1964, he was stationed at Wright-Patterson in Ohio. The hot shot so used to circumventing the Air Force hierarchy was now relegated to running experiments on transport planes.
“It’s this hopeless feeling,” said Charles Bolden, who trained as a pilot in the late 1960s before rising through the ranks to become a general and the first African-American to lead NASA. “You know what the process is and you know what the chain of responsibility and command is and you don’t see any way out of it.” Like Dwight, Bolden also navigated Washington politics, going straight to President Johnson’s office when his career was stonewalled by a bloc of Southern congressmen. “Everything sort of followed the same pattern that all of us have seen who have been among the earlier people to come into any of these programs,” Bolden added.
The next year, Ebony magazine published an article that looked into the case of the forgotten black astronaut. The piece was followed by articles in The New York Times and elsewhere, and the news media caught up with Dwight on the tarmac of the naval air station at China Lake, about an hour’s drive north of Edwards.
The pilot, in his flight suit and folding cap, was ushered to the microphone. He stood alone, blinking at a scrum of reporters. A row of white officers dressed in khaki uniforms and aviators watched from the back of the group.
“Why aren’t you an astronaut now?” one of the journalists asked.
“Well, I couldn’t begin to tell you,” Dwight responded. “I have no comment for that question. But other than that, I won’t make any overt statements at this time outlining any overt racial pressures at any time during my training at Edwards.”
“Do you feel that what’s happened to you is a setback for civil rights opportunities in this country?” another reporter asked.
Dwight scanned the cameras, and the row of officers behind them, and answered, “I would rather not comment on that.” He left it there.
NASA has never given a full explanation for why Dwight did not make the cut. The agency did not then, and does not today, disclose the exact criteria for final astronaut selections.
Slayton explained the process in his 1994 memoir, “Deke!” (which was published the year after he died): “I had already developed a point system that we used in making the final evaluations on astronaut candidates. There were three parts: academic, pilot performance, and character/motivation, 10 points for each part, with 30 being the highest possible score. Some of it was cut-and-dried: You got points for a certain amount of flying time and for education. Some of it, by design, was subjective.”
Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian, explained: “They’re looking for a collection of things that they were never forthcoming about how they’re weighted. I suspect that there may not have been any formula for that. They were looking for a package of people who were extremely good at flying, who were highly adaptable, smart.” He added, “By that point, they’re also looking at, ‘Is this person going to be a good spokesman for the agency?’ but also they wanted to have people who would do what they were told.”
In the years since, the agency’s priorities have evolved. NASA spokesman Robert Jacobs said: “The specifics of Ed’s story and why he never flew in space are hard to address nearly 60 years after-the-fact, but we can say that it took decades for the astronaut corps and other areas of the agency to truly be reflective of America’s diversity. Following the Apollo-era, we saw more of an emphasis on science, medicine, engineering, and other disciplines in the astronaut selection process, and that opened new doors. The 1978 astronaut class and the space shuttle era brought in the diversity we didn’t see in the space program of the 1960s. Today, we have an astronaut corps that better represents our diverse cultures.”
In 1966, Dwight resigned his commission in the Air Force, after 13 years. The next year, Robert Lawrence, the second black man tapped to be an astronaut, died when his Starfighter crashed at Edwards. By the time Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Dwight was living in Denver, working at IBM. Unlike every other person in the United States at the time, he says he does not remember where he was when the Eagle landed.
It was not until 1983, 14 years after Armstrong’s “one small step,” that the United States would send an African-American into space. Today, of the 572 people who have flown into space — 356 of them Americans — just 14 were African-Americans. After leaving the Air Force, Dwight opened a restaurant, started a flight company, went back to school to earn a master of fine arts degree and eventually started a foundry. Today, the man who was on the path to being an astronaut is best known as a distinguished artist, whose specialty is sculpting icons of black history in bronze.
Dwight has also turned an airplane hangar on the edge of Denver into his sculpture studio, where he has worked for three decades. Every morning he parks his Lexus with the vanity plate “SCULPTR” outside. The vast space that once sheltered jets now houses a congregation of Dwight’s sculptures and models: Michelle and Barack Obama, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. He has populated city parks and downtowns with more than 120 monuments, the cost of which can run into the millions of dollars. His sculptures sell to private buyers for as much as $100,000, Dwight said, but astronauts get a discount.
In the years since he joined NASA, Bolden has become close with Dwight. “He became sort of a role model and a mentor for me,” said Bolden, who got to know Dwight while training in the early 1980s. “Ed understands the trials and tribulations of trying and not making it and being able to go on after that. For a young person who is there but struggling, he plays a critical role in helping you decide not to leave.”
When Bolden was confirmed for the top NASA job before the Senate in 2009, he pointed out a “very special person” at the hearing. “While not actually becoming an astronaut, he was a trailblazer in the attempt to break the color barrier in America’s astronaut program,” he told the committee.
“We don’t know what Ed’s place would have been in space history because we were never given an opportunity,” Bolden said recently.
The historian Steven Moss said that had it gone differently, Dwight “would have had his own altar in the civic religion of American space travel.”
Instead, Dwight is both a person who nearly made history and a person dedicated to preserving it. These days he is busy in his studio, contemplating an even longer history. Plans to build a monument are underway on the windswept coast of Virginia at Fort Monroe, and Dwight is being considered for the commission. There, 400 years ago, a ship arrived carrying 20 enslaved Angolans, who were sold to Virginia settlers in exchange for food. It was the start of our chapter of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in which 12.5 million people were shipped to the New World, with 10.7 million of them surviving the journey. It was the beginning of the African-American story, Dwight said.
“I want that one bad for any number of reasons,” he said. “The spot where their feet actually touched down, this is the most historic piece of earth in America.”
It is because of that first that all the other firsts are necessary.
A version of this article appears in print on July 20, 2019, Section F, Page 4 of the New York edition. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


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