Most children who rise through the American education system are familiar with the US space program – or at least the story of the program’s achievements: John Glenn’s orbit of the earth, John F Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, the Apollo program, Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind. “In the end, the big takeaway we get is that America was first in everything,” the documentary film-maker Laurens Grant told the Guardian. There’s an assumption, in American history textbooks, films and the many commemorative specials on last year’s 50th anniversary of the moon landing, of Nasa’s inevitability to get it right, and to be great.
Less widely known, and far from inevitable, is what Grant calls “the forgotten chapter of the space”: the race between the Soviet Union and the US (and in America, the battle against its all-white, all-male space program leads) to put a person of color in space. Black in Space: Breaking the Color Barrier, out on YouTube (viewable below) and on the Smithsonian Channel in time for 2020’s Black History Month, tracks both countries’ efforts to diversify the burgeoning space corps from the beginning of the cold war through the Challenger disaster in 1986, which killed seven Americans, including Ronald McNair, who was black.
The film refutes the assumption of America’s space inevitability, that “it’s all easy and breezy”, said Grant, “but actually it’s quite fraught, it’s quite deadly, it’s quite tension-filled – there’s a lot of high stakes.” For instance, the disappointing possibility that America could have had a diverse space corps over a decade before the 1978 Nasa class introducing McNair and Guion Bluford as well as five women. The most frustrating example is that of Ed Dwight, a decorated pilot and African America media star of the early 1960s whose acceptance into Nasa’s program was pushed by the Kennedy White House. He ultimately wasn’t chosen; Dwight, on camera, and the film suggest pilot Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, privately lobbied against him on the basis of race.
“Nasa had the opportunity to choose a black astronaut” for the Apollo missions, says the historian Richard Paul in the film, “and it didn’t.” The documentary offers “a chance to add a little bit of what could’ve, should’ve, would’ve-ism in these films, but hopefully in a respectful way”, said Grant, noting that the demotion was still visibly painful for Dwight, now 86.
One of the joys of the film, according to Grant, was “putting three huge events of the American 20th century – the civil rights movement, the space race, and the cold war – all in one documentary, and then adding some of these extra layers and nuances of people that you knew”. Dwight’s rejection, for example, offered an “incredibly important propaganda moment for the Soviet Union”, says the historian Damion Thomas in the film. The Russian state press capitalized on the opportunity with articles on American hypocrisy and newspaper photos from the violent suppression of civil rights protests in the American south.
Black in Space suggests that the proximity of the first two trips to space by men of color – by Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez with a Soviet crew in 1980 and Bluford three years later – weren’t entirely coincidental. The film rightfully recognizes both country’s space programs as some of the most blunt, effective and visible forms of national propaganda, which made the visibility of the first black man in space all the more important. Their programs were conduits for international influence and intrigue – a messaging board across the Iron Curtain. For the US, diversity in space would send an important message of equality at home; for the USSR, breaking the color barrier before the “land of the free” was an example against America’s sense of superiority, and a (politically expedient) symbolic embrace of people in its sphere of influence.
In the end, the US lost the race, in which it kneecapped itself in the early 60s. It took 16 years from Dwight’s demotion for another African American man to be considered for the Nasa space program, and another five to send Bluford into orbit. By then, the Soviets had already sent Méndez, a Cuban man of African descent, into space as part of the USSR’s Intercosmos program. Grant traveled to Cuba to meet with Méndez, who is “still reveredthere”, she said, but not particularly well known outside of it, particularly in the US; the film recounts how his goodwill tour, in which numerous foreign countries lavished him with flowers and parades, was barred from entering the US due to the cold war.
Black in Space, like the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, about the black female mathematicians who made largely uncredited calculations critical to Nasa’s early flights, works to illuminate threads of history conveniently lost or placed outside the spotlight. The film is a “reminder that our history, African American history, is American history”, Grant said. She pointed to the Rev Jesse Jackson’s eulogy for McNair, an excerpt of which plays in the film, that applauds the diversity on the crew on the lost shuttle: “That is America at its best. All of these races and genders, the best of the best,” Grant said. “Maybe this film can be a reminder of how great we are and how far we’ve come and, my gosh, how much more room there is to go.”
As the film notes in its conclusion, the US has sent 338 astronauts to space as of 2020. Only 14 of them were African Americans (11 men, three women). “We still haven’t cracked 20, after all these years,” said Grant. “We can’t even say 20 in 2020.”
The dismal statistic is partly illustrative of massive educational disparities by race in the United States: “It says a lot about who gets these opportunities,” Grant said. Her main takeaway from speaking with some of the vanguard of the space race, she continued, was ambition – if they could venture at high risk into the unknown, why can’t we do the same? Where are we going next? “I hope it inspires as much as it generates conversation,” she said. “What else do we do, where else do we go, and how can we be more inclusive?”