A Denver sculptor was the first Black man trained as an astronaut ahead of Apollo 11, but he never made it to space

July 25, 2019

Ed Dwight, Jr. in 1969 (left) and in 2019 (right).

As July lengthens, the flood of ads for TV series, films and events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 moon landing has hit a high mark. Through grainy footage of slow-motion rocket launches and high-definition interviews, they tell a familiar but thrilling tale of America’s nascent steps off the planet.

Most look crisp and compelling, offering a vital history lesson during a time when America could desperately use something to unite around and celebrate.

But most don’t have Ed Dwight, Jr.

“My first thought was, ‘Why the hell are they including me in this?’ ” Dwight, a Denver-based sculptor, said of the new PBS series Chasing the Moon, which premiered July 8-10 on Milwaukee Public Television (MPTV). “But then I realized it had everything to do with what led up to it.”

Dwight 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.

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

In 1961, Dwight was handpicked by President John F. Kennedy’s administration to become the first-ever African American astronaut — a sign of both Kennedy’s progressive values and his savvy image-tending. At the time, the U.S. was locked in a life-or-death chess match with the Soviet Union, and each move created international ripples of fear, anticipation and — when it came to the rapidly developing, all-or-nothing space program — jealousy and competition.

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 Yeager (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 last week. “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. I thought 30 or 40 of these letters were sent out to 30 or 40 Black guys, and then maybe they picked the best ones. I did not realize they had zeroed in on me.”

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

‘Forget it,’ he remembers them telling him at the time. ” ‘You’re a junior officer in a cubicle handling intelligence briefs on whether or not to bomb China or Russia. You’re an operations guy. These are R&D guys. They’re not going to like this little black shrimp (Dwight is 5-feet-4-inches tall) coming down there and being put in the middle of their party.’

Starting in 1962, Dwight trained on the ground and in the air with Yeager 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.

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.

“Kansas City’s got the best barbecue in the world, so when I came here Daddy Bruce (Randolph) was the only guy that did barbecue and I didn’t like it. So I said, ‘Hell, I’ll open my own place!’ ” said Dwight, who worked with preservationist Dana Crawford on the first Larimer Square location of what would become his Rib Cage restaurant.

A $2 million investment, four more Rib Cage locations and other business ventures (including a successful real estate firm) followed. But 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.”

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