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National Geographic documentary: The Space Race uncovers stories of 1st Black pilots, engineers, scientists who became astronauts

HOUSTON, Texas — To the moon and beyond: for decades, that has been the goal of NASA and its world-famous space crews. One integral part of that mission has been Black astronauts, who are chronicled in National Geographic’s new documentary “The Space Race.”

ABC13 anchor Erica Simon was at Space Center Houston in January when the movie was screened and spoke to past and present stars who’ve made history in orbit in the midst of racial injustice here on Earth.

“I would have made it to the moon, but they were not going to let that happen,” Ed Dwight said. He is only 5 feet 4 inches tall, but in the early 1960s, Dwight had a huge presence, which caught the attention of The White House.

As a decorated Air Force pilot and officer, he was hand-picked by President John F. Kennedy to make history.

“When it came to this idea of selecting – how do you find a Black astronaut? So you find somebody that’s accomplished and got the job done. They preferred I’d be a little taller and a little Blacker,” Dwight explained.

Despite not being any of those things, Dwight became the nation’s first Black American astronaut candidate. Kennedy went on to be assassinated, and Dwight missed his moment. That journey is chronicled in National Geographic’s new film, “The Space Race.”

“When I saw it for the first time, I was blown away,” Dwight said.

Emmy-award-winning directors Diego Hurtado de Mendoza and Lisa Cortes spent several years researching and highlighting not only Dwight but early Black pilots, scientists, and engineers like Ron McNair, who tragically died in The Challenger explosion in 1986, and Guion Bluford, who became the first Black American to go to space.

“We had Black astronauts in the 1950s, in the 1960s, in the 1970s, and today. I fear without these stories being told, especially by National Geographic, one of the most trusted, iconic brands in the world- without these stories, those stories may not be told,” Karen Greenfield, the Vice President of Inclusive Content and Engagement for National Geographic, said.

Leland Melvin followed in the pioneers’ footsteps. He served onboard NASA’s Space Shuttle Atlantis and is an Executive Director of this film.

“I hope that every kid that sees this movie believes in their mission possible. They can be anything,” Melvin said with a smile.

Now all eyes are on Victor Glover, a captain and fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy, who soon will be the first Black American to go to the moon in NASA’s Artemis II mission.

He’s also part of “The Space Race” film and showed up to the screening at Space Center Houston to support Dwight.

“It really does feel uniquely special to be a mentee of his, but also to be able to live out something he was struggling for and the system just held him down from. He moved it forward so I could be here today,” Glover said.

Glover says he’s focused on his history-making flight and not nervous.

“I work really hard so that we can say we did everything we could to make this mission successful, and because of that, I’m not nervous. I don’t have time to be nervous,” Glover said.

As the United States struggled to be a more perfect union, NASA saw an opportunity to level the playing field. The racism and barriers aren’t a pretty part of our history, but it is history those who constructed “The Space Race” want people to know about.

“Hopefully, audiences will leave the theater having learned something else about the world they live in,” Hurtado de Mendoza said.

Dwight walked so Melvin, Glover, and many others could fly. The veteran turned well-known sculptor considers it an honor to start the conversation decades ago and hopes his path and this film motivate the next generation.

“All you gotta do is prepare for it, and you can do anything you aspire to do. But you gotta do your homework, and you have to be well-prepared for it. You can’t be nervous about it. You gotta be strong about it, and you gotta stay with it,” Dwight said.

The network premiere of “The Space Race” is on Monday on National Geographic. It will be available for streaming on Hulu and Disney+ on Tuesday.

Disney is the parent company of National Geographic and this station.

Copyright © 2024 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.

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