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Ed Dwight going to space 60 years after (almost) becoming first Black astronaut

Ed Dwight Jr. was rejected by NASA in the 1960s, but will now head toward the stars as part of Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin space tourist program.

Ed Dwight Jr. next to his Black Madonna and Child in the Our Mother of Africa Chapel at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the 25th-anniversary pilgrimage to the chapel on September 17, 2022. (Nate Tinner-Williams)

Ed Dwight Jr. may finally be headed to space, six decades after being on track to become the first Black astronaut in history. Now he might be the oldest instead.

The 90-year-old retired sculptor and former U.S. Air Force pioneer is slated to join the six-person crew of Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule, which will fly the NS-25 mission on an undetermined date. The news was announced on April 4.

“This mission will be the seventh human flight for the New Shepard program and the 25th in its history,” the Jeff Bezos-founded company said in an announcement. “To date, the program has flown 31 humans above the Kármán line.”

Dwight, born in 1933 in Kansas City, was selected to the Aerospace Research Pilot School after graduating from Arizona State University and reaching the rank of captain in the Air Force. The ARPS, known to send graduates to NASA, was reportedly urged by President John F. Kennedy to begin recruiting Black astronauts.

Dwight was the sole such student when he was invited to matriculate to the school in 1961, which made headlines across the country. The elation quickly turned to disappointment, however, when Dwight was controversially not selected to enter the NASA program after completing the first phase of ARPS studies. Dwight resigned from the Air Force in 1966, citing racist opposition. (Guion Bluford Jr. became the first Black man in space in 1983.)

After working as an entrepreneur, Dwight became an internationally known sculptor based in Denver, creating Black history-related works for cities, museums, schools, and churches across the United States and Canada. These include his Black Madonna and Child for the Our Mother of Africa Chapel at North America’s largest church, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. Dwight himself is a lifelong Catholic and spoke there in D.C. in 2022 to mark the chapel's 25th anniversary.

Ed Dwight Jr. speaks in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington for the 25th-anniversary pilgrimage to the Our Mother of Africa Chapel on September 17, 2022. (Nate Tinner-Williams)

When the NS-25 mission lifts off as the first crewed Blue Origin trip since 2022, Dwight will likely become the oldest person ever to travel into outer space. He would outpace the Canadian actor William Shatner, who flew on the Blue Origin NS-18 mission in 2021 at 90 years and 205 days old. Dwight is currently 90 years and 219 days old.

NS-25 will take off on an undetermined date from the Corn Ranch launch site in Texas, which has launched 24 missions in New Shepard capsules since 2012. All but two have been successful, with crewed flights beginning in 2021 and achieving a 100% success rate on six flights. These missions have been referred to as “space tourism,” featuring crews made up of celebrities, scientists, businesspeople (including Bezos himself), and other public figures.

The crewed Blue Origin missions complete a sub-orbital spaceflight, in which the New Shepard capsule enters outer space but does not make an orbital revolution. Such flights also do not reach escape velocity, which would take the capsule out of Earth’s orbit—as seen with traditional astronaut excursions.

Dwight’s seat on the NS-25 mission is being sponsored by Space for Humanity, which Blue Origin describes as “a nonprofit changing global perspectives by democratizing access to space for all of humanity,” Grant funding is also being provided by the Jaison and Jamie Robinson Foundation.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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