Meet the first black man astronaut trained for Apollo 11 but never made it to space

Meet the first black man astronaut trained for Apollo 11 but never made it to space

- Ed Dwight Jr is sculptor with decades of experience and international reputation

- Dwight was selected by President John F. Kennedy’s administration to receive training to become an astronaut in 1961

- This makes him the first black man to acquire training as an astronaut for the Apollo moon landing mission

- However, following President Kennedy's assassination, his successor hand-picked a different African-American pilot, Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. to become the first black astronaut

- Lawrence never made it to space because he was killed in a plane crash in 1967

As the day marking the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 moon landing approaches, walks you through a journey of vital history lesson about Ed Dwight Jr., who received special training prior to the historic landing.

July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 moon landing is a familiar but thrilling tale of America’s nascent steps off the planet.

Dwight, 82, a Denver-based sculptor has worked for decades as a sculptor, earning an international reputation with more than one hundred public dedications and thousands of private commissions and sales.

His work can be seen at national parks, monuments, sports stadiums and galleries in Denver and around the world, having depicted everyone from President Barack Obama to slain Denver Broncos player Darrent Williams and America’s oft-forgotten black pioneers.

Meet the first black man astronaut trained for Apollo 11 moon landing who never made it to space

Ed Dwight’s sculptures are displayed on a shelf in his studio in Denver on Thursday, June 20. (Kelsey Brunner, The Denver Post). Photo credit:
Source: UGC

But the 85-year-old’s artistic success obscures an important piece of aerospace history.

In 1961, Dwight was hand-picked by President John F. Kennedy’s administration to become the first-ever African-American astronaut.

A Kansas City native, Dwight was a gifted aeronautical engineer who was fast rising through the Air Force ranks, tapped by his superiors as he’d been for the Pentagon’s upper-management fast-track.

But when Dwight was invited to begin astronaut training at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California, under the guidance of legendary pilot Chuck Yaeger (the first man ever to break the sound barrier), he wavered.

“Dr. (Martin Luther) King was riding high at the time, and I was told, ‘It’s a possibility to be a credit to your race,” Dwight said from his 30,000-square-foot art studio at 3824 Dahlia St.

“They said, ‘We can show the world that the black folks can have a scientific mind and make scientific contributions as well,' and it was very romantic to hear stuff like that.''

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Dwight felt an immediate backlash as he appeared on national magazine covers, TV news broadcasts and radio programs.

Meet the first black man astronaut trained for Apollo 11 moon landing who never made it to space

In 1961, Ed Dwight Jr. was hand-picked by President John F. Kennedy’s administration to become the first-ever African-American astronaut. Photo credit:
Source: UGC

Racist politicians, reporters and citizens questioned his physical and mental fitness, skeptical that a black man had what it took to make it to space.

“These guys, I call them the forces of darkness, came in with all kinds of medical and intellectual questions about black people’s physiology and intelligence,” he said. “They did studies and presented them to the White House and Congress saying my capabilities weren’t even in the ballpark. It was incredibly controversial and political.”

Doubtful, too, were some of Dwight’s Air Force colleagues who saw his selection as symbolic rather than substantive.

Starting in 1962, Dwight trained on the ground and in the air with Yaeger and others, flying experimental aircraft and undergoing a battery of tests designed to establish his overall demeanor, problem-solving skills and knowledge.

He relished the opportunity and delighted in the access to cutting-edge technology. But when Kennedy was assassinated a year later, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, hand-picked a different African-American pilot (Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr.) to become the first black astronaut.

That, along with Dwight’s allegiance to Kennedy and disillusionment with national politics, grounded his enthusiasm for his military career.

Dwight eventually left the Air Force in 1966. And Lawrence, who was selected as an astronaut for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, never made it to space. He was killed in a plane crash in 1967, according to Popular Mechanics.

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The naturally industrious Dwight gravitated toward a technical career in the private sector, moving to Denver in 1966 to work for IBM as an engineer and, eventually, a self-made restaurateur.

By the mid-1970s Dwight’s heart had drifted back into the artistic realm.

“I started out as an artist,” Dwight said. “It was engineering and flying that was the intervention. I was born to make art,'' Dwight said.

Meet the first black man astronaut trained for Apollo 11 moon landing who never made it to space

Ed Dwight, Jr. poses for a portrait in his studio in Denver on Thursday, June 27. Photo credit:
Source: UGC

Dwight’s father was the one who wanted him to go into the sciences, despite the fact that Dwight had been creating art since the age of 2.

By 14, Dwight was running a studio out of the back of his Kansas City house that his father had built for him, and Dwight was making enough money from selling pieces that he was able to buy his first car with the revenue.

“I drew every military plane they had there to scale and made catalogs of them,” said Dwight, who also began building detailed models of the aircraft, launching a creative give-and-take between science and art that continues for him today.

Once you get above 60,000 or 70,000 feet, you see the curvature of the earth and the big, blue covering of the atmosphere. And in my training I got these visions of space and the Milky Way that I would never get otherwise.”

In 1974, Dwight was commissioned to create a sculpture of Colorado’s first African-American Lt. Governor, George Brown, which quickly led to more commissions that have helped highlight the role of black pioneers in the American west.

Since earning his Master of Fine Arts from the University of Denver in 1977, he has rarely looked back, crafting more than 18,000 sculptures for sale and public display.

“That sounds like a lot, but we cast things in editions and sell lots of them wherever we go,” he said.

Dwight has been featured in the new PBS series “Chasing the Moon,” which premieres July 8-10, 2019 on Rocky Mountain PBS, KRMA-Channel 6.

Robert Stone, director of “Chasing the Moon,” revealed Dwight’s unusual life presented a new route into the story of America’s space program.

Stone, an Oscar-nominated director and veteran of PBS’ “American Experiences” series (of which “Chasing the Moon” is part), didn’t want to simply present the same angles of technological trial and error (although that’s part of “Chasing the Moon,” too) but rather look at it from fresh perspectives.

Dwight was happy to tell his tale to Stone for his audio-only scenes in the series. He just had to be convinced of the legitimacy of the project, given the 50-plus years that have elapsed since his military career.

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