The new National Geographic documentary, The Space Race, shares the stories of the first Black astronauts in the United States and beyond. Most of the film focuses on the experience of Ed Dwight (pictured above)—a pilot commissioned by Kennedy in the early 1960s to be the first Black astronaut candidate (and who was shut out of the program after the President’s assassination)—as well as the three Black astronauts who followed him twenty years later: Guy Bluford, Ronald McNair, and Frederick Gregory.
The documentary, however, also weaves in cultural moments over the years, including the works of Octavia E. Butler, Nichelle Nichols’ involvement with Star Trek and NASA, and the birth of Afrofuturism. “Individuals never live and work and have impact in isolation. We are always in conversation with what is happening around us. And so it was important to show the greater cultural context as it exists with the individual’s history,” The Space Race co-director Lisa Cortés told me in an interview with her fellow co-director, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza.
She added, “I guess we call it the two trains running, and so, particularly for contemporary audiences, it is important to contextualize what 1963 looks like, not only for Ed Dwight, but for our country, and then the subsequent changes that happen. When we think about Nichelle Nichols and Afrofuturism… I think it’s really the first time that people are looking at the appearance of these conversations in these artforms and with this character, and how in turn, they are echoing the conversations that are starting to happen at NASA, that brings us to that first group [Bluford, McNair, and Gregory], for the shuttle.”
While those cultural references speak to what was going on in the country, they also had a personal impact on at least one of the astronauts in the documentary. “I watched Star Trek. That was very powerful—to boldly go on a five-year mission with people from around the universe… all these people working together as one team, and that that really got me inspired and excited,” former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin, who is also an executive producer on The Space Race, told me in a separate interview with Dwight.
Melvin (pictured above) also referenced some non-sci-fi cultural sources as inspirational, from The Little Engine That Could (“I think I can, I think I can”) and Curious George (the importance of “always having someone in the yellow hat who has your back”) to recent films like Gravity and Interstellar.
Dwight, who is now in his nineties, went on to become a renowned artist in his own right, leaving his own mark on the cultural zeitgeist. “It turned out there was an explosion waiting for me, that allowed me to tell every Black story that I could get my hands on in sculptural form,” he said in my interview with him. “The acceptance of it by the country and the people in the collectors and in all the organizations that were able to see my work, it just exploded.”
Learn more about the history of NASA’s first Black astronauts when The Space Race premieres on February 12, 2024 on National Geographic and starts streaming February 13 on Hulu and Disney+.