The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Dwight New Shepard
Ed Dwight emerges from the New Shepard capsule May 19 after his suborbital spaceflight, more than 60 days after he was identified as a potential astronaut. (credit: Blue Origin)

Ed Dwight: The first Black astronaut?

Bookmark and Share

Ninety-year-old Ed Dwight was one of six people aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle when it made its suborbital trip into space on May 19, 2024. In reporting on this flight, The New York Times identified Dwight as “the first Black astronaut.” Many other news accounts described him, more correctly, as “the first Black astronaut candidate.”

Dwight’s story is more complex than reported. The term “astronaut candidate” is used by NASA to describe individuals selected by the space agency for training to become a member of the astronaut corps. By that definition Dwight was not an astronaut candidate. When in 1963 Dwight applied to NASA to become a member of the third group of astronaut candidates, he was not selected. However, if the term “astronaut candidate” is defined more broadly as someone starting down a path to become an astronaut, then the term can properly applied to Ed Dwight.

By NASA’s definition Dwight was not an astronaut candidate. However, if the term is defined more broadly as someone starting down a path to become an astronaut, then it can properly applied to him.

It was John F. Kennedy’s White House that decided in 1962 that the United States should include an African-American in NASA’s astronaut corps, and Dwight was identified as the only Black member of the armed forces who came close to meeting the criteria that had been used to select the first two groups of astronaut candidates. What happened then is a bit controversial. Dwight spent two years being identified by the White House and the media as the likely first Black astronaut, and he started Air Force training to be selected by NASA while he was also used by Washington for extensive publicity about broadening the ethnic composition of the astronaut corps.

There are two broad interpretations of why Dwight was not selected to join that elite group. One is that he did not demonstrate the technical qualifications required for selection during his training at the just-established Aerospace Research Pilot School. The other is that he was a victim of racism among those involved in the selection process.

I became aware of Dwight’s story as I researched what became my 2010 book John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon. I did not include any discussion of his situation in that book, but I did include it in an article titled “John F. Kennedy and the ‘Right Stuff’” published 2013 in the space history periodical Quest (Vol. 20, No. 2.) What follows is the excerpt from that article dealing with Ed Dwight. It is included here with permission of Quest’s publisher. It offers a somewhat different version of Dwight’s story than is currently being reported.

A Black astronaut?

As the US program of human spaceflight got underway, the issue of broadening the ethnic basis of the astronaut corps became an issue of presidential concern. In an anecdote of questionable authenticity, one of Lyndon Johnson’s biographers reports that President Kennedy “liked to tell the story of how he and Lyndon had watched [John] Glenn’s takeoff together from his office [in March 1962], and how, as the countdown began and they were both watching very tensely, Johnson suddenly turned to Kennedy and said, ‘If John Glenn were only a Negro.’”[1] All seven of the Mercury astronauts were Caucasian; this was an unavoidable outcome of President Eisenhower’s 1958 decision to limit astronaut candidates to military test pilots. There were no non-Caucasian test pilots in the military services as the initial astronaut selection took place in 1959, and that was still the case as the Kennedy Administration took office in 1961.

On September 21, 1961, Edward R. Murrow, the prestigious radio and television correspondent who had become the director of the US Information Agency, wrote to James Webb, asking, “Why don’t we put the first non-white man in space?” He added “If your boys were to enroll and train a qualified Negro and then fly him in whatever vehicle is available, we could retell our whole space effort to the whole non-white world, which is most of it.” Webb responded to Murrow on October 18, telling him that NASA had many suggestions for adding to the seven Mercury astronauts, “including considerable interest… in the selection and flight of a woman.” Webb’s reply “did not give any encouragement” to Murrow’s suggestion because it was “inconsistent with our agency’s policies.”[2]

His goal at this point, Dwight recounts, was to become a career Air Force officer, not a test pilot and potential astronaut candidate.

It is very likely that Murrow at this time or earlier had also communicated his proposal directly to John Kennedy. As a presidential candidate, Kennedy had already been sensitized to the symbolic benefits of having at least one Black US astronaut. According to one account, when Kennedy met with various African-American leaders during his campaign to ask them what was needed to make sure he was the choice of most Black voters, Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League, suggested that Kennedy pledge that he would make sure that NASA would recruit a Black astronaut. Although Kennedy did owe his election, among other factors, to his strong support from African-American voters, addressing civil rights issues was not one of his top policy priorities, and neither during the campaign nor in his first year in office did he make such a public pledge.

Kennedy did take several civil rights steps in 1961, however. Among them was putting pressure on the Department of Defense to enforce existing equal opportunity legislation and regulations, and promoting racial integration in the military services. As part of this initiative, the White House apparently quietly urged the Air Force to include at least one Black officer in an incoming class at its new Aerospace Research Pilot School, which had been established in October 1961 as the first formal US astronaut training course. The criteria for applying to the school included being under 35 years of age, having at least 1,500 hours of experience flying jet airplanes, possessing at least a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering, and having three consecutive “outstanding” ratings from his military superiors.

Of the then current Black Air Force pilots, only one, Captain Edward Dwight Jr., met all the criteria for acceptance to the school.[3] According to Dwight, on November 4, 1961, without prior warning, he received a letter inviting him to apply to the Edwards school. His goal at this point, he recounts, was to become a career Air Force officer, not a test pilot and potential astronaut candidate. Dwight did apply and was accepted for the first phase of the year-long program, aimed at teaching basic test pilot capabilities.

The commander of the Aerospace Research Pilot School was legendary test pilot Colonel Chuck Yeager, the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound. Yeager remembers that “from the moment we picked our first class, I was caught in a buzz saw of controversy involving a black student. The White House, Congress, and civil rights groups came at me with meat cleavers, and the only way I could save my head was to prove I wasn’t a damned bigot.” He adds that he “was informed that the White House wanted a black pilot in the space course.”[4]

The program began in August 1962. According to Yeager, Dwight completed the first portion of the course only with special attention and tutoring. Dwight, in contrast, suggests not only that he was not given special help, but that barriers to success were placed in his path. Dwight then began the second, more rigorous, phase, which would focus on space skills and thus qualify its graduates to be astronaut candidates for either the Air Force or NASA. After the Air Force reviewed all the applications for the second phase, Dwight, according to Yeager, was rated 26th and last among finalists for acceptance; plans called for accepting only 11 candidates.

As those who would be selected for the second, space-oriented portion of the course were about to be announced in the spring of 1963, Yeager was called by Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay and told that “Bobby Kennedy wants a colored in space. Get one in your course.” Yeager first tried to defer Dwight’s acceptance to a subsequent space class, but when he was told that this was not acceptable to the White House, he agreed to increase the number of students accepted to 15 instead of the planned 11, with three additional white applicants who had been rated ahead of Dwight, but not originally selected, also admitted. According to Dwight, on the night before the formal announcement that he had been accepted into the advanced course, President Kennedy called Dwight’s parents to congratulate them on their son’s accomplishments, and the fact that he was to be admitted was leaked to the media by the White House.

It was Attorney General Robert Kennedy, rather than his brother the president, who was most active at this time in promoting Dwight’s astronaut candidacy. While Dwight was completing the first phase of his training and even after he was admitted to the space portion of the program, Yeager remembers, “every week, it seemed like, a detachment of Civil Rights Division lawyers would turn up from Washington”; they “squinted in the desert sunlight and asked a great many questions about the progress and treatment of Ed Dwight.” As the Dwight situation unfolded, Edward R. Murrow continued to push the White House regarding the benefits of having a Black astronaut. Murrow again contacted President Kennedy, stressing “the favorable international impact which would stem from our having a negro in training as an astronaut.”[5]

The White House National Aeronautics and Space Council also got involved at this point. Kennedy told Vice President Johnson, chair of the Council, that he hoped that “something might be done” in order to place an African-American in training as an astronaut. Space Council Executive Secretary Edward Welsh at a July 12, 1962, meeting of the council reported that NASA had already looked into the matter, and that “there are not available any but Caucasian males who could meet the rigorous competence and experience qualifications required.” Welsh had contacted the secretaries of the Air Force and Navy, who “agreed to examine the possibilities of working “negroes” and “orientals” into their test pilot training programs, as an initial step toward qualification for astronaut eligibility.”[6]

Yeager’s deputy Thomas McElmurry later commented that “Dwight was perfectly capable of being a good astronaut… He would not have been number one, but if it was important enough to this country to have a minority early in space then the logical guy was Dwight.”

As he progressed through his advanced training, Dwight applied to be a NASA astronaut in 1963. He was one of 26 people, many from venues other than the Aerospace Research Pilot School, recommended to NASA by the Air Force as potential astronauts; a total of 136 individuals applied for selection. Of these, NASA in October 1963 selected 14 as astronaut candidates. Dwight was not among them, although two of his school colleagues, Dave Scott and Theodore Freeman, both Caucasian, were selected. Several members of Congress and the Black-oriented magazine Ebony suggested at the time and later that Dwight had suffered from racial discrimination during his time at Edwards; according to Dwight that allegation was never investigated. Chuck Yeager suggests that “the only prejudice against Dwight was a conviction shared by all the instructors that he was not qualified to be in the school.” Dwight in his autobiography paints a very different picture of systematic harassment and prejudicial behavior by Yeager and other members of the school’s staff.

Yeager’s deputy Thomas McElmurry later commented that “Dwight was perfectly capable of being a good astronaut… He would not have been number one, but if it was important enough to this country to have a minority early in space then the logical guy was Dwight. But it wasn’t important enough to somebody in this country at this stage of the game to do it, so they just chose not to do it.”

Dwight’s classmate Dave Scott, who in 1963 was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate and later walked on the Moon, says that Dwight was not selected as an astronaut candidate because he was less qualified than other applicants, rather than as a result of racial prejudice. This perspective was confirmed by the individual in charge of NASA’s selection process, Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton, who had been named head of the astronaut office after being taken off active flight status. Slayton notes that NASA was well aware of White House interest in Dwight’s candidacy, but although “Dwight got through the school and did okay… Okay wasn’t really enough. Had he been white, he wouldn’t even have been a serious candidate… Just based on the flying and technical matters, Dwight finished out of the running.”[7]

After supporting Dwight’s participation in the space course at Edwards, the White House did not interfere with NASA as it selected the 1963 class of astronauts, and Dwight did not contest NASA’s decision. That being the case, the immediate issue of naming a Black astronaut disappeared. Indeed, NASA would not select African-Americans for astronaut training until 1978; the Air Force in 1967 did select a Black man, Robert Lawrence, as an astronaut in the Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory.


  1. See Joseph D. Atkinson and Jay M. Shafritz, The Real Stuff: A History of NASA’s Astronaut Recruitment Program (Praeger, 1985); Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos, Yeager: An Autobiography. (Bantam Books, 1985); Ed Dwight, Soaring on the Wings of a Dream (Third World Press, 2009) for a discussion of the attempts to diversify the astronaut corps.
  2. Atkinson and Shafritz, The Real Stuff, 98-99.
  3. Dwight’s self-published 2009 autobiography is a rambling account of his prejudicial treatment during his time as an astronaut candidate and is of questionable historical reliability. For example, Dwight recounts an eight-hour interrogation in the West Wing of the White House as he was beginning his training and several unlikely sexual incidents. Nevertheless, this brief account of White House involvement in support of Dwight’s training as a potential astronaut candidate would not be complete without reflecting Dwight’s views of the experience. In addition, there are inconsistencies in these four accounts; what is written here is the author’s best effort to provide an accurate rendering of events. Later in life, Dwight reinvented himself as a successful sculptor, particularly of African-American subjects.
  4. Yeager and Janos, Chuck Yeager, 269.
  5. Yeager and Janos, Chuck Yeager, 270.
  6. Edward C. Welsh, “Astronaut Training Report,” Record of National Aeronautics and Space Council Meeting, 12 July 1962, National Aeronautics and Space Council Files, Box 2, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
  7. Yeager and Janos, Chuck Yeager, 270; Dwight, Soaring on the Wings of a Dream, chapter 1, 2, 15; Atkinson and Shafritz, The Real Stuff, 101; Donald “Deke” Slayton with Michael Cassutt, Deke: U.S. Manned Space from Mercury to the Shuttle (Tom Doherty Associates, 1994), 133.

Note: we are now moderating comments. There will be a delay in posting comments and no guarantee that all submitted comments will be posted.