Documentary highlights the first black astronauts and those who could have been

Local News

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — In 1983, when Guion Bluford became the first black American astronaut in space, the accomplishment was celebrated on television and in newspapers around the world.

Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez received the same amount of excitement in three years earlier in 1980, when he became the first Afro-Cuban astronaut in space.

However, the same stories weren’t written about Edward Dwight or Robert Lawrence Jr., who both were poised to be among the first black astronauts but, as Dwight put it, were in “the right place at the wrong time.”

“The public tends to only remember the big stories of accomplishment,” said Cathleen Lewis, curator of the International Space Programs and Spacesuits at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. “They don’t remember those smaller stories, even though they may have come across their kitchen table.”

These stories form the focus of a new documentary, “Black in Space: Breaking the Color Barrier,” which had a premiere Thursday night at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The premiere featured a panel with Lewis and director Laurens Grant that was moderated by CBS 42 anchor Sherri Jackson.

The film opens with NASA’s attempts to get black astronauts, such as Dwight and Lawrence, and ended with the first three black astronauts Guion Bluford, Frederick Gregory and Ronald McNair, the three of whom were part of NASA Astronaut Group 8 in 1978.

From left to right, Ronald McNair, Guion Bluford and Frederick Gregory (Courtesy of Smithsonian Channel)

While Bluford was the first black American astronaut in space, Gregory went on to briefly serve as acting administrator of NASA in 2005. In 1986, McNair was one of seven astronauts to die in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Grant said making the film was part of the “sweet spot” she likes working in. Grant, whose family is originally from Decatur, had previously directed the documentaries “Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement” and a profile of Olympian Jesse Owens on the PBS series “American Experience.”

“For me, this documentary was a really unique chance to put in one film the civil rights era, the space race and the Cold War, all in one documentary film,” Grant said. “We know all of those elements; they’re probably the three of the most tectonic events of the 20th century in American history, but we don’t necessarily look at them all together.”

Linda Goldman, a producer at Smithsonian Channel, said the public is hungry for stories like the ones in “Black in Space,” as seen with the critical success of the Oscar-nominated 2016 drama “Hidden Figures,” which highlighted black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the 1960s.

“I think one of the things that we all get excited about is when we learn something different or something that gives us a different dimension of a story we already thought we knew,” Goldman said.

“Black in Space” will premiere on the Smithsonian Channel on Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. The film can also be viewed online here.


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