Black in Space: Breaking the Color Barrier is a short documentary premiering on the Smithsonian Channel next week. The timing is appropriate for Black History Month, traditionally every February, but the story is really one of American history. And it’s probably one you’ve never heard before.
If you’re like me, you came of age when NASA was really focusing its efforts on the Space Shuttle program. I can still remember getting excited as they wheeled the TV (nothing was more exciting than watching TV at school back in those days!) to see the launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981.
By the 7th mission in 1983, we were welcoming the first American woman into space, Sally Ride. By the 8th mission later that year, we were sending the first African-American man into space, Guion Bluford, Jr.
America was progressive! America was embracing all Americans! At least, that’s how I remember history. But that is definitely not the whole story and until you hear first hand accounts of African Americans as part of the space program, you won’t really understand what it to get there and why it was so monumental.
The short documentary (less than an hour) starts in 1963 with the introduction of arguably the first African American astronaut candidate. It then guides us through his story as well as many who came after him. The documentary stops just after the fatal Challenger launch that ended in disaster in 1986 and included the death of African American astronaut, Ronald McNair.
In a month that’s full of references to Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all significant African Americans that have contributed greatly to this country, I’d like to remind you of the important African American contributions to the U.S. space program as featured in Black in Space.
If you’re a space buff and near Maryland, be sure to check out The Other Space Center – NASA Goddard.
Edward Dwight, Jr.
Ed Dwight was an up and coming airman in the early 1960s when John F. Kennedy was determined to find a way to elevate the social integration of African Americans. He looked for a well-qualified African American candidate for the astronaut program and found it in Ed Dwight. He was ultimately not selected by NASA as an astronaut amid talk that influential men, like Chuck Yeager, were not ready or willing to turn it into a “black space program.”
Robert Lawrence, Jr.
Robert Lawrence is even more of an unsung hero. He was an air force pilot with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. In 1967, he was the first African American to be selected for the astronaut program. Unfortunately, his plane crashed during one of the many flights required for space travel and he was killed instantly. He most likely would have gone to become the first African American in space.
Guion Bluford, Jr.
In 1978, Guion Bluford was selected for the astronaut program and finally, in 1983, aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, he became the first African American in space. Bluford was slated to travel on the ill-fated Challenger mission but was scrubbed from that mission. He did participate in four separate STS missions before retiring from the airforce in 1993.
The documentary ends on a somber note reminding us that not all heroes live to see their glory. Ronald McNair was an astronaut with a Ph.D. in physics from MIT. His first mission in 1984 made him only the second African American to fly to space, He was tragically killed in 1986 with the explosion of the Challenger.
The Untold Story
Beyond the African Americans that made a significant contribution to the early days of the U.S. space program, the documentary dives into more of the cultural issues surrounding the challenges faced by these men.
It’s uncomfortable to hear the 1960s press and fellow astronauts refer to the “negroes” in the program. It’s even more surprising to hear that the Soviet Union was mocking the racism we faced in our country. They used our division to rise above our progress a bring the first black man, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, a Cuban of African descent into space.
The documentary is also quick to remind us that African Americans made significant contributions to the space program in ways other than the astronaut program.
It’s sad and disheartening to see so many men and what could have been if only they weren’t at the “right place, wrong time.”
I encourage you to watch this documentary with your kids. And I guarantee you’ll be as surprised and enlightened as I was. It’s a part of history we should never forget so that we never repeat it.
‘Black in Space: Breaking the Color Barrier’ is available for viewing starting 2/24 on the Smithsonian Channel and through Smithsonian Channel Plus on Roku Channel, Prime Video, and Apple TV. It’s also available for purchase. See full details on the Smithsonian Channel website.