He was almost America’s first Black astronaut, but Ed Dwight holds no grudges against Edwards AFB

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BAKERSFIELD, CalIf. (KGET) — There’s a new documentary airing on streaming services right now that reveals a different side of the early-’60s test-flight school at Edwards Air Force Base.

It’s the story of the man who might have been America’s first Black astronaut – Capt. Ed Dwight.

President John F. Kennedy was famously determined to send an American to the moon by the end of the decade. Less well known was his vision for what the nation’s first generation of astronauts would look like. Kennedy wanted to send a message to the world not only about America’s dominance in the science of aerospace, but also to portray an enlightened society when it came to race relations.

That’s how, in 1962, Capt. Ed Dwight, an African American test pilot from Kansas, ended up at Edwards Air Base in the Kern County desert. At the president’s direction, Dwight was to become a candidate for the Mercury space program, training under the guidance of the legendary Chuck Yeager – the first pilot to break the sound barrier.

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But, as described in National Geographic’s new documentary “The Space Race: the Untold Story of the First Black Astronauts,” Yeager didn’t want anyone, even the president, forcing a Black pilot on the fledgling space program, and he challenged Dwight every day.

Dwight holds no grudges.

“He was my idol too,” Dwight, age 90, said in a Zoom call Tuesday with 17 News. “You’ve got to look at it from his point of view. He was running the whole Air Force research and development if you will. He was running the deal. And so the president of the United States goes outside of this man and picks some astronaut guy Chuck Yeager’s never heard of.”

Dwight wasn’t just challenged on the professional level. His social life on the base was fraught as well. Particularly memorable was the night at a club that a Colonel’s wife asked him to dance.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” he said. “ The music was playing, the jukebox was playing. I danced, but it was a fast dance. Then the next song came up, and it was a slow dance. And I turned to go back to my buddies and she’s grabbing me, wheeled me around, and said ‘You’re not going anywhere.’”

The following Monday he got a stern note from the base commander, the details of which he’s rather not repeat.

“That was just symptomatic of the whole atmosphere there,” Dwight said.

Dwight stopped going to the club altogether. But he still had Saturday night options – Bakersfield.

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“Fresno and Bakersfield – those were my old stomping grounds,” Dwight said. “That’s where I went for my social life. If you asked me the name of the nightclub, I couldn’t even tell you because a lot of that was kind of a blur.”

Dwight also came to Bakersfield on occasion to speak to students about careers in science and engineering.

His days in the pre-astronaut program came to an end when Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. The president was killed on a Friday. By Monday, Dwight had papers in his mailbox shipping him out to Germany. Bobby Kennedy canceled those orders, but the very next day, he had papers sending him to Canada. Kennedy canceled those orders too, but the writing was on the wall.

Dwight left the Air Force for the private sector and IBM in 1966. He ran a construction company after that.

In 1977, he earned his Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture from the University of Denver, and since then, he has created many works of art — 132 memorial sculptures, including great figures from Black history such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Barack Obama. Several of his sculptures have been flown into space, most recently one aboard the vessel Orion. NASA named an asteroid after him.

He never flew above 80,000 feet and he never exceeded Mach 2.4, but Ed Dwight made an indelible mark on Black history.

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