‘The Space Race’ examines NASA color barriers

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Leland Melvin was in a cab in 1998 on his way to his interview to become an astronaut with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The curious driver was skeptical when he heard where Melvin was going.

He told Melvin that there was no way he could become an astronaut. Thinking this was an opinion based on racism, Melvin asked why he didn’t think he was the right person to go into space.

“He said, ‘Well, you weren’t in the military.’ I’m like, ‘Well, do you know that two thirds of the astronauts are nonmilitary?’ I said, “’What is your answer now?’ He said, ‘Well, um, you, um, well, uh, maybe’,” Melvin said.

Whether or not that exchange was based on race was never made clear but there is a long history of people thinking those who looked like Melvin had no place in space. That is the basis of the new Nat Geo documentary “The Space Race” scheduled to debut Feb. 12 on the cable channel. It will be available on the streaming services of Hulu and Disney+ starting Feb. 13.

“The Space Race” weaves together the stories of Black astronauts seeking to reach for the stars despite the boundaries of racism. Directors Lisa Cortés and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza profile the pioneering Black pilots, scientists, and engineers who joined NASA to serve their country in space, even as their country failed to achieve equality for them back on Earth.

Melvin’s interview went so well that he became a NASA astronaut and served on board the space shuttle Atlantis as a mission specialist on missions STS-122 (2008) and STS-129 (2009). Those missions helped construct the International Space Station.

He later became the head of NASA Education and co-chaired the White House’s Federal Coordination in STEAM Education Task Force, developing the nation’s five-year STEM education plan. He spent 24 years with NASA as a researcher, astronaut and senior executive service leader.

Melvin accomplished his mission, but Ed Dwight didn’t have as much success. He was the first United States Air Force Black jet test pilot and then became America’s first Black astronaut candidate because of pressure put on NASA by President John Kennedy.

Dwight says,” The President called NASA and said, ‘Look, I’ve got this Black pilot I want to make an astronaut.’ Wernher von Braun said, ‘No, you don’t and no you won’t,’ because it would destroy NASA. Politically, it would destroy NASA because NASA would get into this fight with the Black leadership and everything and it would screw up the tax base.

“What the President did, he formed another space program. It was called the MOL (Manned Orbiting Laboratory) program. And so, until NASA could get ready to do what it needed to do, the President created a new space program. And I graduated from that program. I went through training with the Air Force’s military space program, and that’s how this whole thing got rolling.”

The assassination of Kennedy ended Dwight’s chances. It would be 20 years before a Guion Bluford would make history by becoming the first African American in space.

The documentary by Lisa Cortes and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza shows that the race for space has become far more diversified. Victor Glover became the first Black astronaut to live on the space station when he helped launch the International Space Station. He is part of the Artemis program and is scheduled to be the first Black to walk on the moon.

Glover recognizes the importance of his place in space, but he tends to look more at a universal picture.

“I was very intentional about not talking about this narrative that NASA started to want to promote that I was going to be the first Black astronaut to live on the space station because people would say, how do you feel, how does it feel? And the truth is it’s great, I’m grateful to be going on a mission serving my country and humanity,” Glover says. “But it’s a little sad that it’s 2020 and I’m the first.

“There’s physical historical first. The first person to run a sub four-minute mile. The first human to go to space. But these social, cultural firsts that are signs of our ignorance and prejudice, I mean, it’s unfortunate. So, managing that balance, a lot of these firsts that we talk about, it’s not comfortable to talk about the first, it’s important to make sure the second, third, and fourth is there.”

The heartbreaking ends and the high-flying accomplishments are all part of the documentary. The one thing de Mendoza discovered with the link between all of the astronauts featured is their commitment to helping pave the way for the next group of astronauts or all races, creeds and gender.

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