Faith, Flying and Outer Space: America’s First Black Astronaut Has Only Gratitude at 90 Years Young

The road not taken so long ago — not the space trip — gives him pause.

Ed Dwight was one of six crewmates on the 10-minute flight of a Blue Origin rocket, backed by billionaire Jeff Bezos.
Ed Dwight was one of six crewmates on the 10-minute flight of a Blue Origin rocket, backed by billionaire Jeff Bezos. (photo: Blue Origin / Blue Origin X)

After becoming the oldest person to fly in space on May 19, Ed Dwight, 90, received “hundreds of calls” from media and well-wishers. But that was nothing compared to the attention he received in the early 1960s, when he was poised to become America’s first Black astronaut.

“I got 1,500 letters a day. The mail for me came in a four-foot-long tub,” recalled Dwight, who lives in Denver, to the Register. “People were mesmerized by outer space. This was the brave, new frontier. ‘Astronaut’ was a new category of people.”

Dwight was one of six crewmates on the 10-minute flight of a Blue Origin rocket, backed by billionaire Jeff Bezos. But his space milestone represents one achievement among many in a remarkable life. He ran a construction company and chain of restaurants before becoming a celebrated sculptor. Before that, as a puny but determined teenager, despite intense opposition, he and his sister integrated a Catholic high school in 1947 in Kansas City, Kansas. That was after he, spurred on by his devout mother, decided not to enter a seminary to be a priest. 

Ed Dwight poses with one of his many sculptures.
Ed Dwight poses with one of his many sculptures.

Dwight is an energetic, affable raconteur, a trait not diminished by advanced age.


Daily Massgoer and Pioneer

Dwight was born in Kansas City in 1933. His father, Edward, was a swift center fielder for the acclaimed Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. Young Dwight once sat in the lap of Satchel Paige, the legendary pitcher. Dwight’s mother, Georgia, put him in school at age 2. “I was tiny. I would not take up a lot of virtual space on earth. She knew that what was between my ears would be what counted,” recounted Dwight, who topped out at 5-foot-4.

Mother and son walked 1.5 miles to daily Mass together, and Dwight served as an altar boy for a decade. When high school loomed, “in cahoots” with a priest, his mom tried to enroll him in a Franciscan seminary in Cincinnati but was denied because of his race. A Jesuit seminary in Minnesota accepted him. But he balked. “It’s freezing up there,” he said with a chuckle.

Light-skinned, his mom personally signed him up at Bishop Ward High School. When he showed up for classes, school administrators and parents were apoplectic. “They said, ‘No way. You tricked us,’” he recalled. After his mom persisted and went up the chain of command, all the way to the Vatican, the school relented. But 300 students dropped out.

Nearly all returned after the school built a separate shower for Dwight. His conviviality helped pave his acceptance among his peers, and he integrated himself into the ordinary rituals of high school by playing football and basketball. He also became the school’s premier artist. He drew the tall banners in the school hallway that touted forthcoming holy days and sports contests.

After enlisting in the Air Force, he became a test pilot. In 1961, he was selected for the prestigious Aerospace Research Pilot School, a breeding ground for NASA’s astronauts. Aware of the public-relations value of a Black astronaut, especially during the Cold War and the era of racial turmoil, President John F. Kennedy championed him as a worthy candidate. Charismatic and handsome, Dwight was a staple of magazine covers and newspaper features.

Dwight in Air Force uniform
Dwight in Air Force uniform. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons )

Despite a high ranking in his class, he was not selected for the 1963 astronaut class. Chuck Yeager, the record-setting test pilot who led the aerospace training program, did not fancy what Kennedy wanted and impeded his career, according to Dwight, who decided to abandon his astronaut quest a few years after the president’s assassination.

He is not bitter about not being chosen. “My role was to open up the conversation: Could a Black man be an astronaut? Could he make it through the rigorous training program? I refuted the naysayers,” he explained.

Eighteen of NASA’s 360 astronauts have been Black.


Art Reflects Faith

Dwight’s sculpting career began by accident. He hauled home scattered construction materials from his work sites, taught himself how to weld and created eye-catching works of art on a whim. Colorado’s first Black lieutenant governor, George Brown, a friend, was impressed. “He told me, ‘You have a calling. Don’t worry about just making money,’” recalled Dwight.

Dwight created a sculpture of Brown for the State Capitol in 1974, followed by bronzes for a series called the “Black Frontier in the American West.” His career took off, and he completed 132 historical memorials, many of them of Harriet Tubman, the Buffalo Soldiers and other Black historical figures and themes.

United House of Prayer Historic Memorial
Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Suitland MD
United House of Prayer Historic Memorial on the grounds of Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Md.

His art also reflects his Catholic faith. In 1997, he sculpted the statue of the Madonna and Child for the Our Mother of Africa Chapel at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

The road not taken so long ago — not the space trip — gives him pause. “I wonder what would have happened if had become a priest. That is part of the merry-go-round in my head. Would I still have used my talents for art? Maybe I would have done all religious art,” he conjectured.

His brief foray into space was thrilling but not exactly a new experience. “That’s all I did in training for years was weightlessness. G-force was not something new for me either,” he said. But flying 66 miles away from Earth gave him a new perspective: “You could see the difference between the atmosphere and space. It was like a curtain that was pulled down over the windows.” 

He chose to stay in his seat and let the other crew members dance around and revel in the weightlessness. “The space was just so small. I didn’t want to get in their way,” he said.

He did the flight despite being legally blind. His vision was enhanced by a pair of special, expensive glasses. Reclining also helped his vision by increasing the blood flow to his retina. 

He said of his limited vision: “What can you do? You just keep going.” 

The wonders of space pale in comparison to the wonder he feels looking back on his many endeavors. “I’m extremely grateful for the gifts I’ve been given. They are absolutely a gift from God.”