First African-American astronaut candidate, Ed Dwight, set to fly to space at 90

BY Preta Peace Namasaba April 10, 2024 2:27 PM EDT
Ed Dwight. Photo credit: Bettmann Archive/ Getty Images

In a full circle moment, Ed Dwight, the first Black astronaut candidate in the U.S. is set to fly to space. The former Air Force Captain completed the required training but was not selected for the NASA Astronaut Corps and missed out on the chance to fly to space. Six decades later, Dwight is poised to realize his long-awaited dream of space travel.

He will be part of the six-person crew aboard Blue Origin’s upcoming New Shepard flight. It will be the seventh human flight for the New Shepard program and the 25th in its history. Wright’s seat is sponsored by Space for Humanity, a nonprofit changing global perspectives by democratizing access to space for all of humanity, with additional support from the Jaison and Jamie Robinson Foundation. At 90, Dwight is set to become the oldest person to fly in space.

Dwight was born in 1933 in the racially segregated Kansas City, Kansas. As a child, he was an avid reader and a mechanically gifted talented artist who enjoyed working with his hands. He built a toy airplane out of orange crates in his backyard at age four and would go on walks to the local airport with his mother every day. The first African American male to graduate from his high school, Dwight earned a scholarship to attend the Kansas City Art Institute and graduated with an associate arts degree in engineering from Kansas City Junior College in 1953.

He enlisted in the United States Air Force, completed flight training, and earned a commission as an Air Force second lieutenant. Dwight attended night classes at Arizona State University while training to become a test pilot. He graduated with a bachelor’s in aeronautical engineering and earned the rank of captain in the Air Force.

“I was the only Black officer pilot just about every base I was stationed. I got award after award and I was just happy as could be. I couldn’t have had a better life,” Dwight said if his Air Force career.

The U.S. was involved in a space race with the Soviet Union in the 1960s and was losing. To counter the Soviets and to increase support for the space race among African-Americans, some began urging the administration to send a Black person to space. Dwight, a 27-year-old Air Force Captain at the time consequently got a letter in 1961 inviting him to join the astronaut training program. He had 1,500 hours of flying jet airplanes and had received three consecutive “outstanding” ratings from military superiors.

Dwight accepted the invitation and was sent to the Aerospace Research Pilot School to begin training. His selection into the program garnered international media attention and he was featured on the covers of many magazines. Unfortunately, the press appearances made his instructors and classmates grow disdain for him. When the list of the 14 selected astronauts, titled Astronaut Group 3 was announced, Dwight was not on it.

Three years after his rejection, Dwight resigned from the Air Force. He worked as an engineer, in real estate and became an entrepreneur. Dwight earned a master’s in sculpture from the University of Denver and has spent the last five decades creating large-scale monuments of iconic Black figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and the Underground Railroad. More than 130 of his public works are installed in museums and public spaces across the U.S. and Canada. One of his sculptures, “Pioneer Woman,” was sent to space on the vessel Orion as part of a test mission.

“I just erased that board. I drove off that base and I pointed my car north to Denver and I couldn’t look back,” Dwight said about leaving the Air Force.