Pilot Robert Lawrence stands in front of a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter




America’s First Black Astronauts

During the Cold War space race of the 1960s, there were three truths about American astronauts:

  1. Every astronaut was a major celebrity, mobbed by the media and an adoring public alike wherever they went.
  2. Every astronaut was recruited to the space program exclusively from the ranks of military test pilots.
  3. Every astronaut was a white man.

The 1960s were also a time of immense social upheaval in the United States. Black leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated for civil rights for African-Americans, and he found a sympathetic ear in President John F. Kennedy. Seeing the public adulation thrust upon early space voyagers like Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn, both King and the journalist Edward R. Murrow (then working in the Kennedy White House as Director of the United States Information Agency) suggested to the president that a Black astronaut would be viewed as a positive figure not only by African-Americans but also for many white Americans, too. Due to racially-prejudiced attitudes that were prevalent at the time, Black people were too frequently incorrectly seen as lesser humans who were incapable of performing complicated tasks such as those that would be required in crewed space missions.  

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (third from left) meeting with President John F. Kennedy (fourth from right) at the White House in 1963. Photo: Associated Press

Kennedy agreed with King and Murrow’s suggestion. Unfortunately, it was too late to add a Black test pilot to the first group of NASA astronauts; however, the US Air Force was also preparing its own manned space program in parallel to NASA’s efforts. During the 1960s, the USAF developed two crewed space programs, the X-20 Dyna-Soar (“Dynamic Soaring”) and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). Both projects would include an African-American test pilot among the crews training for space missions. 

If not for a combination of bad luck, a political assassination, a tragic flying accident, and the institutionalized racism that pervaded nearly all aspects of American culture in the 1960s, either of these pilots could have been the first Black person in space. Instead, they each became relatively minor footnotes in the history of human space exploration. In recognition of February being Black History Month in the United States, we are shining the spotlight on these two African-American aviators whose stories deserve to be more widely known: Edward “Ed” Dwight Jr. and Robert H. Lawrence Jr.

Edward J. Dwight Jr.

Ed Dwight was an incredibly accomplished native of Kansas City, KS. As a young boy in 1937, Ed saw a cover of The Call magazine featuring a photograph of Dayton Ragland, an African-American air force pilot. Living in the Jim Crow era where racial segregation was still an everyday norm in America, Dwight was awestruck by the photo. “I didn’t even know they let Black people get anywhere near airplanes,” he later remarked. As a high school student, Dwight was a member of the National Honor Society and would later graduate from Kansas City Junior College in 1953. That same year, he joined the USAF, completing basic flight training and earning a commission as a second lieutenant in 1955.

Captain Ed Dwight during his USAF career

Like most military aviators, Dwight dreamed of belonging to the fraternity of test pilots stationed at Edwards Air Force Base, an elite group author Tom Wolfe would describe in The Right Stuff as having ascended to “the top of the ziggurat”. By day, Dwight completed his USAF pilot duties, eventually building up over 9,000 flying hours, and by night he studied in the aeronautical engineering program at Arizona State University, from which he would graduate cum laude in 1957. 

For the hot shot test pilots at Edwards in the early 60s, the X-20 Dyna-Soar was seen as the best way to set speed and altitude records and was therefore a highly coveted assignment. To train future pilots for the X-20 program, legendary aviator Chuck Yeager was tasked with running the Aerospace Research Pilot School (ARPS) at Edwards. Following through on his commitment to Martin Luther King and Edward R. Murrow, President Kennedy ordered General Curtis LeMay, Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, to find a suitable Black test pilot to become a future USAF astronaut flying the X-20.

In 1961, Dwight received the call that he had been selected for Chuck Yeager’s ARPS school. Almost immediately after reporting for duty, he was made to feel unwelcome by Yeager, who thought Dwight was ordered into the program by the president for political appearances, not because he was one of the best available candidates. In a 2019 article for The New York Times, journalist Emily Ludolph quotes Dwight describing how Yeager would regularly try to drum him out of the school. Dwight claims Yeager would call him into his office every week and give him the same speech: “Are you ready to quit? This is too much for you and you’re going to kill yourself, boy.” 

In the same article, Yeager denied making those specific comments, but he did admit to questioning Dwight’s abilities as a pilot and his suitability for the X-20 program. Robert Tanguy, a classmate of Dwight’s at Yeager’s school who would later attain the rank of Major General in the USAF, disagrees. “I thought Ed was a very normal pilot for the program. He was qualified for it. He was an awfully good selection,” Tanguy says in Ludolph’s article. 

Ed Dwight holding a model of the X-20 Dyna-Soar

When word got out to the public that the US Air Force was training a future Black astronaut, Ed Dwight briefly became a national celebrity, especially to African-Americans. Publications aimed at Black readers, such as Ebony and Jet, wrote stories chronicling Dwight’s progress as a prospective astronaut. In a 2020 interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Dwight remarked that he was receiving upwards of 1,500 fan letters every week, many of them being successfully delivered despite being addressed only to “Astronaut Ed Dwight”. 

In 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. One of the consequences of Kennedy’s death was the US military losing a Commander-In-Chief who strongly championed for a Black astronaut. Nevertheless, Dwight persisted and successfully graduated from the USAF’s Advanced Research Pilot School despite the racism he alleges he had encountered from the program’s commanding officer. Unfortunately, the spaceplane he had been training to fly, the X-20 Dyna-Soar, was canceled the same year as Kennedy’s assassination. Dwight and his fellow ARPS graduates had trained to fly a plane that no longer existed.

Not wanting to waste the investment in space mission training gained by the ARPS students, the Air Force encouraged each graduate, including Dwight, to apply as candidates for NASA Astronaut Group 3. Among the new astronauts selected in this group were two ARPS graduates and classmates of Dwight: David Scott and Theodore Freeman. 

Ed Dwight was not chosen.

While the minimum requirements to apply to NASA’s astronaut corps are public knowledge, the specific details that go into deciding which of the many immensely over-qualified applicants are selected and which are denied has never been revealed. Dwight claims he was passed over due to the institutional racism that was pervasive in American culture at that time, including in both the US Air Force and at NASA. After his application to the astronaut corps was declined, Dwight resigned from the USAF in 1966, later claiming that “racial politics had forced me out.”

The chosen candidates of NASA Astronaut Group 3 in 1963. Despite meeting all the required qualifications, Ed Dwight was not selected for this group.

After leaving the USAF in 1966, Ed Dwight spent the next decade bouncing between several different civilian careers, including working in engineering, real estate, and technology. He found his second life’s calling in the 1970s; however, and has spent the last forty-five years working as a professional artist. 

Dwight graduated from the University of Denver in 1977 with a Master’s degree in Fine Art with a specialty in the medium of sculpture. Many of his works, several of which appear on the public grounds of US government buildings, depict heroes of the emancipation and civil rights movements like Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and icons of African-American culture such as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and Hank Aaron. 

In 2009, then-president Barack Obama appointed Charles Bolden to be Administrator of NASA, the first African-American to hold the role of chief of America’s space program. At his confirmation hearing, Bolden invited Ed Dwight to attend as his special guest. Speaking to the committee, Bolden pointed out Dwight in the audience and remarked of his significance to African-American history. “While not actually becoming an astronaut, he was a trailblazer in the attempt to break the color barrier in America’s astronaut program.” Speaking with the media later, Bolden commented further, “We don’t know what Ed’s place would have been in space history because we were never given an opportunity.”

Now 89 years old, Ed Dwight lives in Colorado where he still actively works as a professional sculptor. His 25,000 square foot art studio in Denver is open for public visits. 

Robert H. Lawrence Jr.

Although the X-20 program never got off the ground, the USAF had another space project in the pipeline: the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). Publicly, the MOL was announced as a project to test the suitability of sending military personnel into space for missions of up to 30 days’ duration. However, the MOL also had an undisclosed secret black ops mission: covert orbital reconnaissance of Soviet facilities beyond the Iron Curtain.  Among the seventeen USAF test pilots selected to train to become MOL astronauts was one African-American: Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr. 

Major Robert Lawrence during his Air Force career

Born in Chicago, IL in 1935, Lawrence would earn a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Bradley University and a PhD in physical chemistry from Ohio State. He was commissioned as an officer in the Air Force in 1956 and earned his wings, later graduating from the prestigious USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards.

During his USAF career, he logged over 2,500 flight hours, including many in the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, a notoriously challenging aircraft to handle. As a test pilot flying the F-104, Lawrence helped develop gliding techniques that would later be used by both the X-15 rocket plane and the Space Shuttle during their unpowered descents and landings. 

Robert Lawrence next to a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter.

Of the seventeen test pilots chosen for the MOL program, Lawrence was the only one with a doctorate degree. At a press conference announcing the new USAF astronaut-trainees, a reporter jokingly asked Lawrence if he would be forced to sit in the back of the spacecraft, a reference to the racist laws of the era which forced segregation of African-Americans riding public transportation. Fellow MOL trainee Don Peterson, a white Southerner, spoke in Lawrence’s defense. “I can’t speak for all the people in Mississippi,” said Peterson, “but I am not reluctant to work with a Black man.”

Lawrence at the press conference announcing his selection as a USAF astronaut-trainee.

Tragically, Lawrence never had the opportunity to fly into space. In 1967, while flying as the back-seat instructor during an F-104 training flight to teach steep-descent approach and landing techniques that would subsequently be used by Space Shuttle crews, the front-seat student pilot flared too late before touchdown. Both pilots ejected, but Lawrence did not survive. The promising career of America’s first Black astronaut was suddenly over before he had the opportunity to fly into space. He was only 32 years old. Peterson, who would later rocket into orbit on board the shuttle Challenger, said of Lawrence’s untimely passing, “Bob was a super guy. His death was a terrible tragedy.”

Lawrence with three other USAF astronaut-trainees next to a model of the MOL launch system.

Two years after Robert Lawrence’s death in 1967, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program was canceled by Congress before ever sending USAF astronauts like Lawrence’s compatriots into space, an identical fate to that which had befallen the X-20 Dyna-Soar and Ed Dwight’s class of ARPS graduates six years prior. Several of the MOL test pilots transferred to NASA as part of Astronaut Group 7 in 1969. While these pilots joined NASA too late to be selected for any of the Apollo missions, they formed the core of the early Space Shuttle crews. In an alternate timeline where Lawrence survived his 1967 crash, he almost certainly would have been selected for one of the first shuttle flights and likely would have become the first African-American astronaut to fly into space.

Despite never becoming a space traveler himself, Lawrence’s name is engraved on the Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Center, the monument that honors American astronauts who died in the line of duty while pursuing human space exploration. Lawrence’s MOL mission patch was flown into space aboard the shuttle Atlantis in 1997. NASA named 27 asteroids in honor of pioneers of African-American, Hispanic, and Native American space exploration in 2020. Among those 27 is the asteroid Robertlawrence 92892.

The Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Lawrence’s name is engraved in the upper-right. Photo: John Owen.


Further Reading