Landing on the moon is arguably America’s greatest accomplishment. It’s therefore symbolic of our times that the American flag has been expunged from the upcoming biopic of Neil Armstrong, First Man. Star Ryan Gosling, a Canadian, said the moon landing “transcended countries and borders” and defended the erasure of Old Glory because “I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that’s how we chose to view it.” In response, President Donald Trump called it “unfortunate” and a “terrible thing” and announced he wouldn’t see the movie. “It’s almost like they’re embarrassed at the achievement coming from America,” the President said.
One wonders if the film’s producers would be as eager to conceal the specifics of the moon landing if the Kennedy Administration’s original plans had been successful. Had John F. Kennedy not been assassinated, there’s a significant chance one of the first men on the moon, if not the first man, would have been African-American pilot Ed Dwight.
According to J. Alfred Phelps’s book They Had A Dream: The Story of African-American Astronauts, the Kennedy Administration was very aggressive in looking for “Negro” candidates to place in the NASA astronaut candidate program.
It all began with a telephone call from the White House to the Department of Defense. There was no arrogance in the caller’s voice; only a simple question:
‘Does the Air Force have any Negroes in the new aerospace research pilots’ course being set up at Edwards Air Force Baser in California?’
After what was probably an extended pause came the answer: ‘No, there aren’t any.’
It was an ordinary enough question, but the call came from an extraordinary source.
Had it come from an ordinary White House, the reaction might have been mild, nothing more than grist for a workday tale some government employee could tell at a weekend gathering. But this call came from the Kennedy White House, that place called “Camelot,” which had seen the beginning of civil rights ‘sit-ins’ and had sent troops to get a black man into a university in the Deep South. It was a White House that had used its influence to gain Martin Luther King’s release from jail. Perhaps the recipient of the call knew all of this and felt a bit like a person in a closed garage slowly filling with carbon monoxide. In any event, the reaction was predictable: something had better be done—and rather quickly. The innocuous-sounding call thus became something of an edict. (p. 6)
Luckily for the Kennedy Administration, the Air Force found Ed Dwight, a black test pilot. However, the legendary Colonel Chuck Yeager questioned Captain Dwight’s abilities.
Yeager later maintained that Dwight’s abilities were so lacking ‘we set up a special tutoring program to get him through the academics, as I recall, he lacked the engineering [background] that the other students had.’
Yeager further observes that Dwight worked hard, as did his tutors, but adds that ‘Dwight just couldn’t hack it. . . didn’t keep up in flying.’ Yeager claims to have worked with Dwight on his flying, but he noted that ‘our students were flying at levels really beyond his experience. The only prejudice against Dwight,’ Yeager recalls, wagging a literary finger, ‘was the conviction that he was not qualified to be in the school’ in the first place. (p. 20)
According to Colonel (now General) Yeager, Captain Dwight did not represent even the top ranks of black test pilots. However, Charles Sanders at Ebony magazine alleged Captain Dwight was subjected to a racially demeaning lecture and pointed to racism as the reason he was ultimately cut from the astronaut program.
The real reason was probably the assassination of President Kennedy. According to People magazine in 1988, Captain Dwight admitted “President Kennedy has taken a personal interest in his career.” However, he was dumped three days after the president’s death. “When my protector was killed, I was out,” he said.
Captain Dwight told Ebony in 1984 that his expulsion from the program “was 100 percent the death of Kennedy.” Indeed, before Kennedy’s death, his participation in NASA was heavily promoted by the government. “Prior to Kennedy’s death I was living awfully high on the hog,” he said. “I had a private secretary. I was sending out 5,000 press photographs a month, and I made 176 speeches the first year I was in [the astronaut training program at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.].” As Ebony put it, “The Kennedy Administration tried to break away from the White-Protestant-male mold for its astronauts in 1961 by including one black.”
In The Right Stuff, the late Tom Wolfe identified the “Ed Dwight case” as a deliberate attempt by the Kennedy White House to subvert the meritocratic culture of the astronaut program. He writes that Colonel Yeager had received word that President Kennedy was “determined” that NASA “have at least one Negro astronaut.” The result was a massive push by the federal bureaucracy to artificially promote Captain Dwight.
Every week, it seemed like, a detachment of Civil Rights Division lawyers would turn up from Washington, from the Justice Department, which was headed by the President’s brother Bobby. The lawyers squinted in the desert sunlight and asked a great many questions about the progress and treatment of Ed Dwight and took notes. Yeager kept saying he didn’t see how he could simply jump Dwight over these other men. And the lawyers would come back the next week and squint some more and take some more notes. There were days when ARPS [Aerospace Research Pilots School] seemed like the Ed Dwight case with a few classrooms and some military hardware appended. A compromise was finally struck in which Dwight would be admitted to the space-flight course, but only if every man who ranked above him was also admitted. That was how it came to pass that the next class had fourteen students instead of eleven and included Captain Dwight. Meantime, the White House, apparently, was signaling to the Negro press that Dwight was going to be ‘the first Negro astronaut,’ and he was being invited to make public appearances. He was being set up for a fall, because the chances of NASA accepting him as an astronaut appeared remote in any event.
The whole thing was baffling. On the upper reaches of the great ziggurat the subject of race had never been introduced before. The unspoken premise was that you either had the right stuff or you didn’t, and no other variables mattered.
As Wolfe noted, in 1959, the white, Protestant identity of the Mercury Seven was “benign evidence” of “Small-Town American virtues.” However, President Kennedy’s minority-heavy coalition for his 1960 campaign made “white Protestant” take on a different meaning. Wolfe argues that military officers generally tended to be “old settler” stock and this explained why so many test pilots were WASPs. However, this demographic truth did not change the political reality that the Kennedy Administration wanted a black astronaut.
Under the new Johnson Administration, Captain Dwight never became an astronaut. He later became a successful sculptor, and there’s no doubt he was a highly skilled, even an outstanding pilot. However, it’s doubtful he met the elite standards needed to be an astronaut. He was in the program because of his race, and when that political consideration was no longer heeded, he was removed.
This story is significant because the glory days of NASA are often seen as an age before “political correctness” infected the entire program. Though Hollywood and the mass media are doing their best to retcon the story of the space program as a multicultural enterprise, few are buying it and the program is still regarded as a triumph of white America. This episode shows that political correctness was present even at the program’s inception. It’s possible that had Captain Dwight stayed in the program, politicians may have pushed for him to have been the first man on the moon.
First Man can dismiss the uniquely American nature of the space program precisely because it is seen as a uniquely white achievement. One wonders if a black man had been the first person on the moon if the film would still present the moon landing as a “universal” accomplishment. If treatment of blacks in pop culture is any indication, it is more likely that it would be presented as a uniquely black accomplishment. When whites accomplish something, it is the achievement of “humanity.” When another race does something, it becomes solely that race’s victory—even if an army of whites were the ones who made it ultimately possible.