Counting down to liftoff. Dangerous trips to the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. Gravitational forces powerful enough to pull blood from the eyes. The sound of immense power unleashed in barely controlled fury. Thundering toward the sun. Zero gravity.
Born in 1933 in Kansas City, Kan., Edward Joseph Dwight was an altar boy who visited the local airport every day, where he studied and drew the airplanes. He loved art, but his dream was to fly. “This was a white man’s world,” he said of his early passion. “I never thought for a minute that I would really fly an airplane. This was crazy.”
But a front-page story in his local newspaper fueled Dwight’s ambitions: The plane of an African-American pilot from his hometown had been shot down in Korea. “He was standing on a wing of a jet . . . and I was like, Oh my God, they’re letting Black folks fly jets,” he said during an interview.
Dwight enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1953, where he rose through the ranks: from cadet to second and then first lieutenant, and later, to captain. While training to become a test pilot, he attended night classes at Arizona State University, graduating in 1957.
On Nov. 4, 1961, Dwight received a signed letter from President Kennedy’s office that read: “I’m inviting you to become America’s first Negro astronaut . . . this is very exciting because if this project succeeds, you will probably end up being the greatest Negro that ever lived.”
The news brought immediate attention from local and international media: Dwight had become the first African American astronaut trainee.
A New York Times headline read: “Negro Astronaut Aiming for Moon.” The Indianapolis Recorder reported: “Kansas Native in Line as First Sepia Astronaut.” The United States Information Agency sent photos of Dwight to newspapers worldwide. “I was sending out 5,000 press photographs a month, and I made 176 speeches the first year,” Dwight told Ebony magazine in 1984.
The civil rights movement and the space race seemed to have embraced. But after Pres. Kennedy’s assassination, NASA did not select Dwight. He later shared that the racial politics and a lack of career opportunities encouraged him to resign from the Air Force in 1966, never having gone into space.
He then worked a few jobs and eventually moved to Denver, Colo., where he would resume one of his childhood passions: art.
Dwight studied at the University of Denver, earning his MFA in 1977. During that time, he gained a reputation as a sculptor.
Now 85, Dwight’s private Denver studio, Ed Dwight Studios, is one of the largest privately owned production and marketing facilities in the western United States.
His commissions include: Underground Railroad Memorial, Patterson, N.J.; Denmark Vesey, Charleston, S.C.; Medgar Evers Memorial, Alcorn, Miss.; Martin Luther Jr. & Coretta Scott King Memorial, Allentown, Pa.; and Tulsa Race Riot Memorial, Tulsa, Okla.