July 14, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA
Space

America's first black astronaut candidate finally flew. Now is the time to do more

Ed Dwight thought he would be an astronaut six decades ago, when President John F. Kennedy's administration, in its campaign to reach the Moon, realized that the impact of the United States reaching our closest celestial neighbor would be greatly magnified. if the crew included a person of color.

“Why don't we take the first non-white man into space?” Edward Murrow, Kennedy director of the United States Information Agency, wrote to NASA administrator James Webb in 1961, just five months after the Soviet Union sent a person, Yuri Gagarin, into space for the first time. “If his guys enrolled and trained a qualified black man and then took him on any available vehicle, we could retell our entire space effort to the entire non-white world, which is the majority.”

The climb was steep. While African Americans had paths into the U.S. military, few had the privilege of becoming pilots in the 1960s, which was the primary path to becoming an astronaut. Dwight was the only one identified among their ranks who met the criteria to be a NASA astronaut candidate.

Why Dwight was ultimately not selected remains a topic of controversy. Not all candidates make it and NASA could have simply chosen someone else. Or, Dwight may have been subject to the same discrimination that held back dozens of African Americans in the Jim Crow era. When asked in 1985, Dwight blamed the Kennedy assassination as the reason he never flew into space for NASA. He has maintained that support for his escape died with the president.

It wasn't until 1983 that the first black astronaut, Penn State alumnus Guion Bluford, flew into space. By then, Dwight had dedicated himself to art, which would become his focus. Regardless of the cause of Dwight's omission, one thing remains true: In the 1960s and 2020s, there remains a shortage of Black talent flowing into the space sector. In Dwight's case, America was still actively grappling with the equality of its black citizens. Dr. Martin Luther King was still marching and Congress had just passed landmark civil rights legislation to protect African Americans from systemic discrimination.

Today, as a society, we have made a lot of progress. Dwight's recent flight is an example of how people are working to correct past failures. on May 19, Blue Origin, a private space company, launched Dwight on its own New Shepard rocket, sponsored by Space For Humanity, a nonprofit organization. Dwight achieved his long-delayed dream at the age of 90. This was a fantastic event, but it also highlights the need to be more proactive and deliberate about progress as a society, particularly for today's aspiring black youth. Frankly put, there are still very few African Americans participating in our space sector, whether as astronauts, rocket scientists, satellite engineers, or other vocations.

I see this clearly at industry conferences. Among thousands of attendees, I see, at best, a few dozen black participants. Among hundreds of speakers, the number of blacks drops to single digits. At smaller events, sometimes I'm the only one.

Four years ago, a handful of space industry leaders united around the vision of seeing more African Americans have space careers. Those leaders—retired astronaut B. Alvin Drew, Jr, United Airlines interiors engineer Khristian Jones, NASA engineer Tiffany Lockett, and AeroVironment executive Will Pomerantz—created the Patti Grace Smith Scholarship (PGSF), an organization which offers internships at space companies for black college students. students, along with scholarships, mentoring and networking opportunities. The Jim Crow years may be over, but the scars they left are still evident in the dearth of black participants in the space sector. PGSF aims to fill, as best we can, the void left by historical injustices. We are creating pathways for Black students who, like Dwight, dream of going to space and promoting humanity's presence in the cosmos.

Since our founding, 104 “Patties” have completed scholarships through our organization, the first of which are just beginning to enter the workforce. One of them is now a Blue Origin engineer who helped facilitate activities on the day of Dwight's flight.

The 2023 class of PGS Fellows. Credit: PGSF/David Di-Benedetto

“Being a part of the magic that was the launch of NS-25 today was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said PGSF graduate Emily Burrus, who guided the youth events at the launch. “Ed's story is a ray of hope for all those who have had their dream opportunities slip away due to prejudices beyond their control…I am greatly inspired by his resilience and it was an honor to meet a man who has just change the world forever.”

Adam Ben Youssef, one of 29 upcoming PGS Scholars in our Class of 2024, also attended the flight.

“Today was so action-packed that it will probably take me a couple of days to really process what I just experienced,” he said at the May 19 event. “But one thing I know I will take with me is that no matter what I face, I will never stop striving for greatness.”

PGSF is creating the next wave of Black Excellence. We encourage students interested in space and aerospace careers to apply to our program later this summer. Companies or individuals who wish to support our cause can donate through our website. Here's to creating more Ed Dwights.

Caleb Henry is an executive member of the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that provides extraordinary Black students with work experiences in the space and aerospace industries. He co-directs the fellowship with Juanitta “AJ” Bekoe, Khristian Jones, Tiffany Lockett and Will Pomerantz.

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