Aviation & Space News: Meet Ed Dwight

Ed Dwight is my hero.

Space Force celebrates trailblazer

By Tech. Sgt. Armando A. Schwier-Morales, Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs / Published August 07, 2020

Ed Dwight came to the Ontario International Airport to  tell his story and to give our entire space and aviation a goo history lesson.

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Gen. Jay Raymond, Space Force chief of space operations, congratulates Edward Dwight, sculptor and space pioneer, Aug. 5, 2020, at the Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia. Raymond awarded Dwight the Commander’s Public Service Award and inducted him as an honorary member of the Space Force during his visit. (U.S. Air Force photo by TSgt. Armando A. Schwier-Morales)

WASHINGTON, (AFNS) — — The past may be history, but the present and future still offer opportunity. On Aug. 5, 2020, the newest military branch inducted an honorary member: Edward Dwight.

Dwight is an American sculptor, author, and former test pilot. He enlisted in the Air Force in 1953 and separated as a captain in 1966. In 1961, he took the first steps toward improving diversity and talent in the U.S. Space program by becoming America’s first African-American astronaut candidate. This was a time of uncertainty where the color of a person’s skin mattered more than his or her skill.

“Someone took time to remember all of the interesting parts and pieces of my life and bring them to a national level,” he said during the induction ceremony hosted at the Pentagon. “I am shocked that, at this age, after going through all the stuff I went through in life, I’m getting this kind of recognition…”

After a successful period of time as a pilot, in 1961, the Kennedy administration selected Dwight for astronaut training. He completed the Experimental Test Pilot course and entered Aerospace Research Pilot training in preparation for Astronaut duties. He successfully completed the course and continued to perform duties as a fully qualified Aerospace Research Pilot. While in training, he faced obstacles due to his race, which derailed his chance to be the first African American in space. Dwight’s fight for equality was one of many trailblazing battles happening during the civil rights era.

The assassination of President Kennedy, his main sponsor in the oval office, and the curtailment of his space journey led to his separation from the Air Force. He then transitioned his passion for flying to his passion for sculpting. He memorialized and honored the legacy of great African Americans in his art, his sculptures a celebration of innovation and diversity of thought.

Dwight dedicated his skills to honor those who paved the way unknowing that he, too, was part of that legacy. Celebrating his contributions was just one of many things that happened during Dwight’s visit to the Pentagon.

“It was truly an honor to induct Mr. Edward Dwight into the newest military branch,” said Gen. Jay Raymond, chief of space operations U.S. Space Force. “He made history with his trailblazing and then proceeded to preserve history with his creativity.”

In a ceremony Raymond presented Dwight with the Commander’s Public Service Award, for his contributions to the U.S., space, and history during times of overt racism in the field of science. And yet, he was an example of excellence, embarking on a NASA-sponsored nationwide speaking tour encouraging young people to study science, engineering, and math.

“Today has been all about honoring all the things that I did, but I didn’t do any of these things for honors,” said Dwight. “It was about contributing in the best way I knew I could to this country.”

He continued to give to his country by inspiring the space professionals he met throughout the day at the Pentagon.

“It was an honor and humbling being able to meet someone who has accomplished so much in both air and space,” Maj. Jose Almanzar, Space Force strategic initiatives group. “It gives me strength to think about Mr. Dwight and how he had to deal with so much adversity and overcome so many obstacles.”

The visit to the Pentagon included time with the Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper, Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett, Chief of Space Operations U.S. Space Force Gen. Jay Raymond, and former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein. The visit finished with a meeting with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army Gen. Mark A. Milley.

Ed Dwight Was Going to Be the First African American in Space. Until He Wasn’t

The Kennedy administration sought a diverse face to the space program, but for reasons unknown, the pilot was kept from reaching the stars

gettyimages-1154159450.jpg

<img src=”https://thumbs-prod.si-cdn.com/ZErZ0e4LAYaaZq6ksAybXB8Cu5Q=/800×600/filters:no_upscale():focal(663×160:664×161)/https://public-media.si-cdn.com/filer/3d/cc/3dcc4515-08d6-4ba5-ab02-30237f51de99/gettyimages-1154159450.jpg” alt=”Ed Dwight in Air Force uniform” itemprop=”image”>

Captain Edward J. Dwight, Jr., the first African American selected as a potential astronaut, looks over a model of Titan rockets in November 1963. (Bettmann Archive / Getty Images)

By Shareef Jackson

SMITHSONIANMAG.COM 

FEBRUARY 18, 2020

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In the early 1960s, U.S. Air Force pilot Ed Dwight was drowning in mail. “I received about 1,500 pieces of mail a week, which were stored in large containers at Edwards Air Force Base. Some of it came to my mother in Kansas City,” Dwight, now 86, recalls. Fans from around the world were writing to congratulate Dwight on becoming the first African American astronaut candidate. “Most of my mail was just addressed to Astronaut Dwight, Kansas City, Kansas.”

The letters, however, were premature. Dwight would never get the opportunity to go to space—despite the publicity and hype—for reasons that remain unclear even to this day.

Dwight was working at the time as a test pilot at Edwards in the Mojave Desert of California, the U.S. Air Force’s premier experimental flight base and a pathway to entering the astronaut corps of NASA. He trained in the Aerospace Research Pilot School, run by aviation icon Chuck Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier. Edwards holds a legendary status, then and now, as the premier flight test facility of the Air Force, where the likes of Gus Grissom and Gordon Cooper, two of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, and Neil Armstrong, selected in the second group of astronauts, trained as test pilots in experimental jets over the vast high desert that often served as an impromptu runway. During his time at Edwards, Dwight flew jets such as the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, a supersonic aircraft capable of soaring into the high atmosphere where the pilot could observe the curvature of the Earth.

“The first time you do this it’s like, ‘Oh my God, what the hell? Look at this,’” Dwight recently told the New York Times. “You can actually see this beautiful blue layer that the Earth is encased in. It’s absolutely stunning.”

Dwight’s participation in the astronaut selection process caught the attention of many, including Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League, who booked speaking tours and interviews for Dwight with black publications across the country, such as Ebony and Jet. As the eyes of America were on the space race, the eyes of Black America were specifically on Dwight.

The national attention led to increased public pressure for Dwight to be selected as a NASA astronaut. The Kennedy administration, which campaigned strongly on civil rights issues, had already taken an active interest in Dwight’s career, seeing his potential as an important symbolic achievement for both the White House and the nation.

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed one orbit of the Earth in his spaceship Vostok 1, becoming the first human in space. The flight captured the imagination of the world, and Edward R. Murrow, a former broadcast journalist who had become Kennedy’s director of the United States Information Agency, came up with an idea to recapture American prestige in the final frontier.

In September of that year, four months after the United States sent its first astronaut into space, Murrow wrote to NASA administrator James Webb: “Why don’t we put the first non-white man in space? 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.”

Around this time, Kennedy encouraged leaders in all the military branches to work to improve diversity among their officers. When the first group of NASA astronauts were selected in 1959, the nation’s military officer pilots, initially the only people who could apply to be astronauts, included no people of color. But as Murrow advocated for a black astronaut, Dwight was rising to the rank of captain in the Air Force, armed with an aeronautics degree from Arizona State University and enough flying hours to qualify for the flight test school at Edwards.

Edward Joseph Dwight Jr. was born on September 9, 1933, in Kansas City, Kansas. From a young age he showed a particular interest in art.

“I was drawing and tracing cartoons in newspapers at the age of 2,” Dwight says in an interview. “I had a library card at 4, and soon I was studying the great masters such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. I did my first oil painting at 8.”

And Dwight had another early passion outside of art: airplanes. “I hung around the local hangar and began cleaning out airplanes around 5 or 6 years old,” he says. “I wanted to fly by the time I was around 9 or 10.” Growing up in segregated Kansas, Dwight doubted that he would ever get the chance to pilot an aircraft himself, but then one day he saw a photo of a black pilot who had been shot down in Korea. “He was standing on a wing of a jet, and he was a prisoner of war,” Dwight recalled to the Times, “and I was like, Oh my God, they’re letting black folks fly jets.”

Dwight’s mother, Georgia Baker Dwight, wanted her children to attend the private Catholic high school Bishop Ward in their hometown of Kansas City. But Bishop Ward had an established system of white feeder middle schools, and had no desire to bring in African Americans, which would likely cause existing students to leave.

“At the time, I had been an altar boy since the age of 5. There were no black Catholic high schools in the area,” Dwight says. “My mother wrote first to a church in Cincinnati, and they claimed to have no power over the local church. Then she wrote the Vatican directly, and they ordered the school to integrate.”

Dwight’s admittance to Bishop Ward opened up new opportunities, but the racial prejudices of the late 1940s and early 1950s shaped his experiences at the school. “We integrated the high school without the National Guard,” he says. “They put me in a training class to deal with white people,” where the advice included, “Don’t look a white girl in the eye.”

“There were 850 students on my first day of school,” Dwight says. “Three hundred dropped out soon after I showed up.”

While his artistic skills eventually led to a scholarship offer from the Kansas City Art Institute, Dwight says that his father “sat me down and said you’re going to be an engineer, because they make more money.” After becoming the first African American male to graduate from Bishop Ward in 1951, Dwight completed an associate’s degree in Engineering in 1953 from Kansas City Junior College. That same year he enlisted in the Air Force.

Edward Dwight Jr. was an ace combat pilot with a top aeronautics degree and 2,000 flying hours under his belt. In 1962, he was announced as a candidate to become America’s first black astronaut.

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As Dwight progressed steadily in the Air Force, with stints at bases in Texas, Missouri and Arizona, he helped develop technical manuals and train fellow pilots on various aircraft instruments, racking up flight hours all the while. Even so, he was told that he would not be eligible to be a squad leader. “They didn’t want to make a short, black guy squad leader,” he says. “They told me that country boys wouldn’t want to follow me, so I became the number two guy to the squad leader. [But] I wouldn’t allow those white guys to outdo me in anything.”

While in the service, Dwight continued his education, graduating with an aeronautical engineering degree from Arizona State University in 1957. He flew some of the most advanced aircraft of the era and would ultimately accumulate over 9,000 hours of flight time, 2,000 in high-performance jets. His engineering background and extensive training opened the door for him to enter the test pilot school at Edwards.

The end of 1957 was also a pivotal moment in history, as the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 on October 4. Designed as a science experiment, the satellite still scared U.S. leaders about the potential of the Soviets developing advanced nuclear capability. Lyndon B. Johnson, then majority leader of the U.S. Senate, remarked that the Soviets could soon “be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses.”

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