Edward Dwight, Once Picked to Be the First Black Astronaut in Space, Aims for Space at Last

Edward Dwight is going to space, finally.

In the coming weeks, as conditions allow, Mr. Dwight is expected to be part of a six-person crew heading into space on the latest mission of Blue Origin, the space company founded by Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin’s seventh human flight will carry an array of adventurers including a venture capitalist, a craft-beer entrepreneur from France, a retired accountant who has been told by doctors that she is going blind, and Mr. Dwight, a retired Air Force captain who 60 years ago was chosen, and then passed over, to be the first Black man to orbit Earth.

Mr. Dwight wound up in the astronaut training program at Edwards Air Force Base in California in the early 1960s under the command of Chuck Yeager. (In 1947 General Yeager became the first test pilot to break the sound barrier; he died in 2020.) Mr. Dwight was a charismatic, handsome test pilot, a public relations dream for an administration looking to lead on civil rights. President Kennedy was a supporter, but General Yeager was not impressed; according to a well-chronicled history, General Yeager described Mr. Dwight as an average pilot who had been placed on the A-list for political reasons. Mr. Dwight had a different account, recalling General Yeager as a racist who wanted him removed. His height — 5 feet 4 inches — was also a disadvantage, Mr. Dwight recalled.

After the assassination of Mr. Kennedy in 1963, Mr. Dwight was not selected to go to space. The would-be astronaut left the Air Force in 1966 and went on to other successes, including as a restaurateur and real estate developer in Colorado and, eventually, as a celebrated sculptor of prominent figures in Black history.

In conversations spanning several months, Mr. Dwight spoke to The New York Times about his impending spaceflight. The interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

How do you feel about going to space?

It’s a culmination of a long life of events. I’ve thought this would be a nice end of a fascinating story about all I’ve gone through and my reaction to adverse conditions.

Everything I’ve done has been an uphill battle: getting into the military and being an Air Force pilot, getting chosen by the president of the United States to be the first Black astronaut, and facing all kinds of obstacles in the years that I was in that program. But I was performing well, and that’s why they would say, ‘Oh my God, this guy’s getting things done,’ and my Blackness and my shortness didn’t mean a damn thing.

Then, after I left the Air Force, I came to Colorado and became a big-time businessman — and then started an art career at the age of 45. My whole life has been about getting things done. This is the culmination.

What is your prevailing emotion now — anger? That you’ve been lucky? Or something else?

I’m not angry and I’m not lucky; neither of those things is in my mind. When you get angry, your brain stops working. I couldn’t even think about getting angry or disappointed about anything; that’s my psychological makeup, I guess. When I came across people that might have caused me a setback, I rationalized: Why did they feel that way?

Chuck Yeager was taught as a kid that Black people were ignorant and stupid and couldn’t do a damn thing. He and I had conversations about it, and so, no, I had no anger toward him. People are products of their background, and there wasn’t a damn thing I was going to do to change his attitude.

The only thing I could do was show Yeager that I could do anything that was expected of me and transcend. In no way could he throw me out or get rid of me.

Why would he want you thrown out?

We’d have these conversations, and this guy would pull out a sheet of paper that he carried — a folded piece of yellow, lined paper that had all these names — and he’d say, “Captain Dwight, I got 100 and 50 white boys on this list, and every one of these white boys are more qualified than you to be a test pilot.”

And I’d say: “So are you telling me that all these white guys are superior? Every street at Edwards is named after a dead test pilot, and every one of those guys is white and dead. They had to have made mistakes somewhere along the line to be have a street named after them. Don’t come to me with this stuff about how smart and witty and brilliant and able white people are versus Black people.”

There were 17 people in my class, and I finished seventh. I had to remind him of that.

You faced numerous obstacles to getting to space.

The power brokers were not going to give the last frontier to a Black person or a woman.

So, now, a guy who didn’t get to fly into space when he was supposed to, is going at 90, at the end of his career. Some people think of that as justice. But I don’t think that way. It seems far too late for it to be justice. My philosophy is that everything has a time and place. This is a natural occurrence that should have happened at some point.

What do you think you will see when you’re up there?

During my flight-test days, I went high enough to see the curvature of Earth, the totality of the land, to look at Earth as a big ball. But I am curious. We’re laying down in the capsule, and you’ve got this big panoramic window. I’m definitely putting this in my gee-whiz file.

Care to add anything?

America is the guiding light of the world. Anybody who thinks about running for national office should take at least three orbits around Earth as a prerequisite. They should look down at how valuable it is and how sacred it is and how fragile.

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