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PBS special profiles black astronauts

Early in Black Stars in Orbit, which airs today at 2 p.m. on WUSF-Ch. 16 and Thursday at 10 p.m. on WEDU-Ch. 3, a former Air Force pilot, nominated in 1963 to be the first black astronaut, discusses what he says was the racial prejudice that kept him from that achievement. President John F. Kennedy had prodded him to apply for the space program, says Edward J. Dwight Jr., and there were rumors that "he had this dream of having a black or . . . an Oriental" on the nation's first mission to the moon.

Dwight never became an astronaut. The reason, he says - his bitterness muted but still there - was racial prejudice, particularly by a white senior officer at the Air Force test pilot school to which Dwight had been assigned.

You'll wish that this excellent Orbit had done more in the segment - had identified the officer Dwight doesn't name and listened to his side of the story.

It might have shown that even with Dwight's accusations of bigotry, perhaps a bit more was involved. The program, produced by film maker William Miles, should at least have raised more questions.

But this one-hour documentary about America's black astronauts and the blacks who worked behind the scenes in the nation's space program, still is well worth viewing.

It lets them tell of their dreams and the obstacles they faced and amply shows their determination to succeed in what for years had been an all-white, all-male preserve.

The program profiles six black astronauts, including the late Dr. Ronald E. McNair, one of the Challenger crew members killed when the spacecraft exploded in January 1986.

Others on the program include Dr. Mae C. Jemison, who will make her first space flight next year, and Air Force Col. Guinon S. Bluford, who in 1983 became the first black to travel in space.

Orbit also shows, sparingly, the outright racism that existed, the ugliest example a letter once sent the widow of Air Force Maj. Robert H. Lawrence Jr., the first black pilot selected for astronaut duty.

Sympathy cards poured in, she says, after he was killed in the mid-'60s when the ejection seat of his F-104 fighter malfunctioned just before the plane crashed.

But the mail also brought hate. One writer, she recalls, said he was glad her husband was killed "because now there would be no coons on the moon."

In a long but interesting segment, actress Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura of Star Trek, speaks about how she agreed to use her TV fame to help the nation's space program recruit minorities and women.

But perhaps the program's best moments come when individuals simply are allowed to talk about what they do, or about their experiences in space if they've been there, without a big deal being made about what "first" they accomplished.

It's good that viewers, particularly young ones, know what blacks have faced in the space program, and prior to that - such as their struggle to fly combat missions in the racially segregated military of World War II.

But sometimes it's just as helpful to just listen to someone like Marine Col. Charles F. Bolden Jr., who flew the space shuttle Columbia in 1986, talk about the space program or his memories of McNair.

He's articulate and obviously loves his work. He shows that today's Right Stuff cadre has no color, only desire, courage, education and ability.